Pushcart 2015: Nancy Geyer, “Black Plank” (non-fiction) from Georgia Review, #67.1

John McCracken: "Black Plank"

John McCracken: “Black Plank”

Every few minutes, my father pushes out of his armchair to take a tour of his house….
I appreciate my father’s inquiries, because while I was growing up his career—which took him around the world—came first. The interest he’s showing me now feels like a novelty. It’s utterly free of preoccupation. The thought crosses my mind that maybe this is how I’ll remember him: a single weekend will erase years of inattention. In any event, work is not what I’m doing. I’ve given up on trying to write in my father’s home, which is just outside of Washington, DC, where I live, and am tackling my e-mail instead. Among the recent acquisitions at the National Gallery of Art, I learn from the museum’s newsletter, is a 1967 piece titled Black Plank by John McCracken, a Minimalist artist with whom I’m only vaguely familiar. I mumble something to my father and he shuffles back to his cluttered study.

A story, be it fictional or true, can be told many ways. One of the reasons I love these “prize” anthologies is that they display different ways of telling stories. I don’t always like, or understand, how some authors choose to tell their story, but I love the kind of brilliance that goes into figuring out how to tell a particular story. And once in a while, I’m fascinated with how a story is told, AND I understand it, AND I enjoy it. Like this one. And for the icing on the cake – it’s available online (thank you, Georgia Review).

As with the fiction story “Trim Palace,” the heart of Geyer’s non-fiction piece is only revealed by a few casual sentences sprinkled from the first paragraph on. These hints combine perfectly with the surface story, an essay about art, to create a whole that is, I believe far more powerful than a direct telling would be.

If AIDS was the horror of youth, and breast cancer the phobia of female middle age, Alzheimer’s disease is the terror of the golden years. Every forgotten name, every misplacement of keys, leads to the consideration, “Is this it?” Though it’s almost a certainty heart disease will get me before my brain has time to form the enough plaques and tangles to matter, it’s still a constant fear: losing one’s memory, one’s life as lived, a little at a time, irrevocably.

Part of the reason for the additional power of the story is the removal of all sentiment and overt emotion. Instead, we look at art and other metaphors, leaving the emotional energy in the reader’s lap:

Black Plank. I come to a halt at these words as if I’ve been driving, not scrolling, and they are an obstacle in the road. Together they are inelegant, “unworkable in the literature of wonder or beauty,” in G. K. Chesterton’s formulation. They sound like the name of a disease—a mold that attacks the trunks of trees. They also evoke a human affliction: mind matter that’s thick and dark, or—because the words are a bit of a tongue twister—blank.

When I read the title of this piece, I did, indeed, misread it as “Blank Plank.” I had no idea what it meant. But set in the story here, for me the primary association was: walking the plank. A line from old cartoons, from pirate adventure stories, not from literature. Low culture, not fine art. Yet here it is: Geyer is watching her father walk the blank plank, and she is unable to do anything about it other than watch. And write.

This is poetry. Oh, it’s prose piece. But in the same way a plank of wood can be art if it’s handled correctly, so too can prose become poetry. I’ve quoted Wordsworth’s definition of poetry several times in these pages: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” In his lectures on Dante’s Commedia, particularly the “Paradiso” canto, Georgetown philosophy professor Frank D’Ambrosio takes it farther, sees a comparison between poetry and the Eucharist: “The force of Dante’s warning is, if up to this point you really haven’t committed yourself to the transformative miracle of poetry, then don’t bother with the rest.” This is the power of poetry: to change the meanings of words, to create something more than the single thought of a declarative sentence, to add subtext and overtones merely by using the right word, a word that, when viewed in another context, might not suggest all the things suggested in the poem. ” I dwell in Possibility – / A fairer House than Prose ” wrote my friend Emily Dickinson; poetry allows for more than is on the page.

That’s what this essay is. Not that it’s written as a prose poem; some portions are beautifully lyrical, but that isn’t the point. The point is that everything mentioned has multiple layers, such as her description of the meaning of the edifices of buildings and the steps of the Supreme Court, the implications of reality (prose) intruding on symbolism (poetry). It’s too long to quote here, but it’s worth reading (and did I mention the piece is available online?).

This is the closest Geyer gets to sentiment, yet she observes sentiment rather than writes it:

Hanging from a bookshelf in my father’s study is a whiteboard on which is written
B—in Congo
Nancy here till Friday noon

To the immediate left of the board is my college photo, and although it’s possible I’ve been in that position for years, I suspect that my father’s wife, just before she left for Africa on business, moved it there to reinforce the connection between my name and my face. To the right of the board is a medium-size mirror. The third part of this book-blocking triptych, the mirror haunts me, though I can’t figure out why. Eventually I decide that its placement serves a purpose as well: to reacquaint the inner and the outer selves.
Getting to any of the books on the shelves is difficult. Pictures hang from every edge. Framed newspaper articles that feature my dad. Photographs of him shaking hands with well-known people. Diplomas and letters and certificates of appreciation. This display looks for all the world like that of a man with an enormous ego. But there is no ego. My father had always hung a few mementos in his study, but the extravagance now is so that he might be reminded of what he had made of himself.

Another quality of poetry, particular modern poetry as I learned in my beloved Modpo, is the tendency for form to enhance meaning. As I read the words of the National Gallery of Art’s description of the “There is Nothing to See Here” exhibit in which Black Plank appeared – “Verging on invisibility or immateriality, these works can provoke, mystify, or even go unnoticed. The very difficulty of seeing them demands an extraordinary patience in viewing them” – words Geyer quotes in her essay, words that apply to the artwork, to the story, and to the subject, I’m convinced this story was told exactly the right way.

As for the “Black Plank” itself, the art work, I’ve always been ambivalent about highly conceptual art. It’s as if it’s a trick: is the object art, or is it something left there by mistake, perhaps by a worker who had too much to carry and will be returning for it later? That’s a standard cartoon of modern art, going with the trope, “But is it art?” Personally, I’ve never understood what’s so wonderful about the Mona Lisa, but I admit I have no artistic sense at all.

But the “Black Plank” will stay with me, whether it’s art or not. And that means “Black Plank” surely is.

Pushcart 2015: Edward Hoagland, “Hippies and Beats” (non-fiction) from New Letters, #80.1

Being a little younger than the Beat generation writers (although my first book was published in the same year, 1956, as Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems) and yet older than the mainstream Hippie movement later on, I observed both the certain skeptical affinity.

I was uncertain through much of this essay. A reminiscence? I don’t sense much affection, or even much connection to the people and things that went before. There’s some compare/contrast, but it’s a short essay, just over four pages, so how informational can it be? For such an august literary personage with such an interesting past (he literally ran off to join the circus as a kid, served in the army, graduated from Harvard, travelled the world writing about peoples and places; how many people can claim those disparate things?) this seems an odd approach.

The two movements – the Beats of the 50s and the Hippies of the 60s – sometimes get conflated by virtue of the shared flouting of convention, but Hoagland points out some fundamental differences: how women are viewed (“The Beats were patriarchal, for the most part”) and the anti-intellectual intellectualism (“The Beats didn’t read very much that wasn’t Buddhist or Beat, but they weren’t anti-literate, like many Hippies, who seemed to regard reading as an Establishment activity”).

And, by the way – did any of it make a difference? How’s the Establishment doing today? Does anyone get the sense that protest itself has been co-opted? Then again, maybe it always has been that way – per deliciously telling phrases like “mainstream Hippie movement”.

But towards the end, music plays in the language, and my heart was indeed captured:

Freedom and ambivalence were what the Hippies sought. The winters were character-building and they learned carpentry, chainsawing, latrine-digging if they stuck around, while their main stoner drug edged toward being decriminalized. But that was less romantic than hitting the road and spilling the beans in compulsive cadences, banging around, depending on the kindness of strangers. My rocking-chair friend and my girlfriend both also died too young, perhaps from a shared distrust of doctors, or from smoking fungicide marijuana. Ginsberg intoned famously at the beginning of “Howl” that “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed…” Dubious, but certainly people he loved.

From the rhythm of that third sentence – a rhythm of rocking chairs and cadences – to the aching nostalgia of the last: Is anything as glorious, as significant, in the retelling as in the experience?

Pushcart 2015: Inara Verzemnieks, “The Last Days of the Baldock” (non-fiction) from Tin House, #57

Given the chance, the more sentimental among them would probably return in summer. Summer was when it seemed as if all the residents of the Baldock threw open the doors of their homes to the bronchial, hawking churnings of the passing semis and wheeled coolers out to the picnic tables that had not yet surrendered to rot. There they would sit, cans clutched in cracked hands, as their dogs whipped smaller and smaller circles around the trunks of the Douglas firs to which they were chained. In those moments, it was possible for them to imagine that they had merely stopped there briefly on a long road trip, that they were no different from the men and women with sunglasses perched on the tops of their heads who trooped in and out of the nearby restrooms, mussed and squinting.

We think we know people, based on very little information about them. Say “librarian”, “football player”, “mother”, “homeless”, and you fill in a lot of blanks to come up with a general idea of what this person is like – quiet or outgoing, smart or stupid, pleasant or scary. Good or bad. Worth knowing, or not.

We think we know people. But we don’t.

Journalist Inara Verzemnieks stumbled upon a community of people who were clinging to the last rung of society’s ladder, trying desperately not to slip further – because they know, as we all do, how hard it is to climb back up even one rung, let alone the whole stretch. It’s a community that was about to be involuntarily dispersed. Perhaps that was the best thing for it; perhaps not. But what struck me was how it challenged every assumption we might make about the people who bear the labels we stick on them, and how uncertain it left me as to right and wrong, good and bad, should and shouldn’t.

The community was that of a group of people who lived at the Baldock rest stop on an Oregon interstate. Homeless, you might say. Or, you might not.

The access they gave me didn’t seem to depend on my being a reporter… Instead, I suspect, they were judging me by a more subtle rubric, reading me for clues that would help them gauge my capacity to understand.

Verzemnieks discovers the Baldock in the course of researching a story of a meal-delivery service. She discovers people like Joleen, who’d lived in a van with her boyfriend for three years on top of some intermittent stays when the weather was too cold for a campground. Joleen’s kids visit her at the Baldock on Mother’s Day. She meets The Mayor, who served as a sort of intake worker: “I don’t have money, booze, or cigarettes to give you, and don’t give me any shit. But I always have food to share. Ain’t no one out here gonna starve.”

We meet Ray (Joleen calls him “Dad” as they’ve forged a particularly strong supportive bond), who feeds his dog Sweetpea and gasses up his old motor home with his Social Security check. He may have lived at the Baldock for twelve, thirteen, seventeen years, no one’s sure. And people like Jack, the newbie, caught first in the housing market collapse, then in trucking industry cutbacks.

It’s easy to sit in judgment on the homeless. Why don’t they get a job? Why don’t they make better decisions? It’s harder to look close, and realize each story is unique. Yes, mental illness and general foolishness come into play, but so does bad luck. And don’t forget: it’s not as easy as you think to get back into society, once you’ve fallen out of it. Yes, some people do it. Then again, some people are Yo-Yo Ma and Einstein and Gandhi. Some people are indeed talented, and that includes a talent for navigating modern life. And some people are not so talented at that particular skill, or perhaps they just lack a support structure – family, friends with extra rooms and generosity. That doesn’t mean they aren’t people.

“You know what I love most about Thanksgiving?” Jack said. “Football. It’s been months since I’ve actually seen a game on TV, not just listen to it on the radio.” Everyone nodded and they talked about how luxurious it would be to sit on a sofa again, stupid with turkey, tasked with no other concerns than whether to flick between the college or pro games. It struck them all as the height of decadence, of insanely good fortune.

The Last Days started with a maintenance worker informing the residents the rest stop would now be the responsibility of the Oregon Travel Experience. The handwriting was on the wall:

Others, like members of any neighborhood group upon hearing rumors of possible planning changes, turned to the public computer at the community center for reconnaissance.…And though none of what they could find was written in what one would call plain, unadorned speech, one phrase in particular, about helping the rest stops achieve their “full economic development potential,” seems to them to translate as having something to do with money – be that making money or saving it. Either way, it was not a concept that they suspected would live comfortably alongside homelessness. Intuition told him that much.

Their intuition is straight-on: “the Baldock Restoration Project” was underway. Notice, it was the rest area, not the people, being restored. A solar energy installation was planned. The State of Oregon has published an official report citing the US Department of Transportation’s “environmental justice Order 5610.2″ and outlining the planning and execution of the relocation of the Baldockians.

To their credit, they didn’t just send in State Troopers; they did make efforts to understand the community, to meet different needs with different solutions. Yet I wonder why, if they were to select one image of one Baldock resident, they chose the one they did.

It’s hard to find fault with a solar energy project; it’s not easy to be against finding stable living situations for people living in their cars. If I’d just read the Oregon report, I might think they’d done a good thing. But now, having met these people on a more intimate level, I’m not sure. The local news story actually offends me with its high-and-mighty, “Ain’t it Awful” hysterics.

This is what point-of-view can do. And it occurs to me, maybe the “forward/back” “good/bad” theme I’ve been so determined to force on everything, is really a matter of point of view. The Oregon report, while including details of the Baldockians’ varied stories and attempting to take a sociological view, to evince concern and “environmental justice”, is clearly from the observer’s side. Verzemnieks tells the story from the residents’ side. She doesn’t skim over the ugly stuff, but she presents these people as people first. It’s a lot easier to feel compassion for people, when you see them as people, as one of us, instead of one of them.

“Some people would say they wouldn’t be caught dead living like this, in this nasty old RV,” [Ray] said. “But you know what, I consider myself so fortunate to have this. Because when you’ve had nothing – and I’ve been there – living like a no good dirty bum, low as you can go, in the streets, and people won’t even look you in the face, like you’re an animal or something and you don’t have shit, you’re thankful for whatever you can get. Let me tell you, I’ve never been so thankful.”
He jabbed his face with his fists, trying to hide the tears.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I lose this. I can’t live like that again.”
No one spoke.

The piece ends with an intense emotional punch as we see that even success has its price.

Oregon seems to feel it solved the problem. Verzemnieks doesn’t seem so sure. I wonder if there is a solution. I wonder about Joleen, and Jack. I wonder about Ray and Sweetpea. I wonder.

Pushcart 2015: Maribeth Fischer, “The Fiction Writer” (non-fiction) from Yale Review, #101

"The Storyteller" :  Zimbabwean art

“The Storyteller” : Zimbabwean art

Even now, I see her hands and forearms covered with ink – phone numbers, dates, reminders about meetings, words she wanted to remember. And once, sitting at the bar at Smitty McGee’s, she swung around on her stool, lifted the hem of her skirt and showed us her leg, covered to mid-thigh with writing: notes about the novel she was working on; a song lyric she’d heard while driving. Another time, over coffee in the morning, I saw words from the day before imprinted on the side of her face. I knew how she slept then, hands tucked under her cheek. I didn’t mention that the words were there and later, after she saw herself in the mirror, she said, “Why the hell didn’t you tell me? Geez, would you let me run around with my dress stuck in the back of my underwear too?”
       “It was hardly noticeable,” I laughed. The ink had been smudged, like faint bruises.
       I’m still not sure why I didn’t tell her she had writing on her face – it is the kind of thing you’d want your friend to let you know. It seems fitting that I didn’t, though, for this is how I’ll always remember her: words literally pushed into the pores of her skin.
       Writing a story on her body so that her body had a story.
       In the end, this was all she was – a story we would tell repeatedly. Each time, we would embellish it more, highlighting certain moments, habits, things she used to say or do.
       Like stripping an old car for salvageable parts: that’s what we would do to her life.
       It’s what she had done to ours.

Stories. A writer’s life revolves around stories, of course, but so do many aspects of our lives, as illustrated by many of the works I’ve already encountered in this volume: the woman who tells her son a story, and the son who lives the story she tells, in “The Mother”; the story a young writer-to-be, misplaced in military service, told himself about his adequacy in the face of absurdity, while the perpetrators of that absurdity told themselves it was a necessary security precaution, in “My White House Days”; the story the perpetually down-on-his-luck loser of “Say” told to get a song from the only person who mattered; the stories we tell to get through blackouts, lonely evenings, jobs that grate down our ethical sense, or to comfort us in a world that seems at odds with everything important to us. Stories that tell us what we want to hear, when we can’t hear it anywhere else. Stories let us make sense of the world.

Maribeth Fischer tells us a horror story in which the monster is a story.

She was bamboozled by a twinned pair of diabolical flim-flam artists: one, a new friend, and the other, her own tendency, the one we all have, to see what she wanted to see, to fulfill some subconscious need. When Natalie, a fellow writer came to town and showed interest in her, Fischer was swept away with the feeling of being noticed, of being chosen by someone who seemed greater than herself. She threw herself into the friendship, as she had in other relationships, urgently trying “to make myself indispensable; if I’m not , no one will need me. And if no one needs me, no one will want me.” It’s not as flattering as being selfless and compassionate, but, as examined in “Annie Radcliffe, You Are Loved”, it probably underlies a great deal of do-gooderness in the world. Fischer is astute enough, and honest enough (what admirable honesty!), to recognize it later as she writes this memoir.

But not at the time.

Natalie affected more than just Fischer. The heretofore lackluster writing group blossomed and expanded, developed energy and enthusiasm. She was, after all, a Success, having landed a lucrative two-book contract with Random House, which led to requests for an article series by The New Yorker, then a second article series. The town was so overwhelmed by their good fortune to have this amazing resource available to them, no one really noticed there wasn’t a single word in actual print…

Because for the nine months that Natalie was in our lives, she was a big-time author whose life was about to change in wonderful, dramatic ways. She was a wonderful teacher and Kent was in love with her and she was, as Randy Lee said, happy. And I was a woman who was fun and spontaneous. Fun. A word that had been gone from my life until Natalie brought it back to me…. The members of the writers’ guild began to see themselves as writers, began to believe that their stories mattered. And so they did. And I can’t help it: I find something beautiful in this capacity to believe so fervently in the stories we fabricate that we become what we dream.

If Fischer had written this as fiction, it would’ve been too unbelievable. How gullible are these people, we’d wonder. But I’ve been there.

There are people who not only can project the image of What They Are so strongly it overshadows the reality of what they are, but they know exactly who will be susceptible and who will not. I’ve had “friends” like this. They are Batmans who know when they see a Robin. These friendships can work, for a time. It’s only when Robin thinks maybe Batman should do something a little different in this case, or when Robin gets a little limelight, that Batman gets upset. As Fischer says in a turning point in her relationship with Natalie: “…I had unknowingly betrayed her, broken an unspoken pact.” Two things happen then: the relationship falls apart, which feels like catastrophe to Robin; but that’s followed by a gradual regaining of sight, the ability to see the story one has been acting out. Someone else’s story. Not a story of rescue and redemption, but a story of dominance, and, surprisingly, mutual need.

There’s an Armenian motto I came across several years ago, via a sculpture by John Ventimiglia featured in my local public library: “Three apples fell from heaven: one for the storyteller, one for the listener, and one for the world.” That’s pretty astute writing advice right there: a story requires, not just a teller, but a listener, who has a pre-existing milieu of beliefs and needs into which the story falls; from there, it moves outward. Fischer tells us how that interaction might play out when the listener is herself a storyteller.

Stories, the only thing that allowed Scheherazade to survive for a thousand and one nights.
Stories, the only thing that allows anyone to survive loving someone she will one day lose.

Even though she eventually recognized how she’d been fooled – her friend Kent had been bilked out of a considerable sum, in fact – Fischer still felt a loss, the loss of the story, the belief. This is what turns the essay from a “This happened to me” story into a story that, as Roxane Gay tweeted a couple of years ago, “look[s] outward as much as it looks inward.” The writer, whose job it is to make the reader believe, is by nature a believer of the story that surprises, that takes unexpected twists and turns. The writer is vulnerable to the perils of belief, the price of her art.

Pushcart 2015: Thomas E. Kennedy, “My White House Days” (non-fiction) from New Letters , V79#3-4

I used to be able to tell about this straight out. Not that I was proud of it, but neither was I ashamed. Years ago, I had what used to be referred to as a nervous breakdown. I tried to kill myself. When I broke down, I decided it was because of secrets, and I didn’t want anymore secrets. Then I began to heal and didn’t want to talk about the breakdown any longer, tended to gloss over that period of my biography.
At the time, late summer-early fall of 1963, I worked in the White House – in the executive office building, now referred to as the old EOB, which housed inter alia the office of the Vice President. JFK was president. I worked as a stenographer for the White House Communications Agency – WHCA, responsible for the president’s travel. You might think you see where this is going – 1963, responsible for the president’s travel – but it’s probably not what you think.

Now, I didn’t write 30 books, as Kennedy has, nor did I go to writing school and I certainly don’t teach it (as Kennedy does), but it seems to me, if you’re going to write an essay about My Years in the White House, and your name is Kennedy, your first sentence should be “No, not one of those Kennedys” instead of tucking that information into the middle of the piece. I guess that’s why I’m not a writer. And I suppose, if he’s written 30 books and won numerous awards (this is his second Pushcart), I should’ve recognized the name. Maybe that’s my problem, but it’s just the beginning of how jerked-around I felt by this piece.

But none of that is the point. Or maybe it is the point, since Kennedy gets pretty jerked around himself, by the military in the name of National Security. The absurdity of all that, and its effect on a perfectly normal, bright and promising boy whose only failing was earnestness, is the point.

A product of Queens, NY parochial school and a less-than-idyllic home life, he joined the military in 1963 hoping for an assignment in France, where he could learn more about the literature and language he had already come to love. When offered a position at the White House, however, he saw it as a privilege to serve the President, so France would have to wait.

What he didn’t count on was the security interview:

His questions seemed ordinary enough that I don’t remember them – until he asked:
“Have you ever engaged in normal sexual relations with a woman?”
Suddenly I was back in confession with the priest. But I had what I thought was the right answer – that is, the answer they wanted…
With mild indignation, I said, “No!
The major looked up at me from his pad and asked, with slight incredulity, “No?
The trap had snapped shut. I had exposed myself to the suspicion that I was a rat who smelled strange bread in women. There was no going back. I blushed. “No.”
His eyes were on me, then dropped to his pad, where I imagined his printing in all caps the word RISK. “Have you ever had abnormal sexual relations with a woman?”

And it goes downhill from there, culminating in Kennedy’s “nervous breakdown”. Thankfully, he recovered, though it took some time – about 50 years, in fact – to come to terms with it.

To those born in the Digital Age, or even the Age of Aquarius, it may seem implausible that a 19-year-old male would assume that chastity was a virtue, or, for that matter, not a subject of shame. To those of us who grew up in the same era, perhaps around Fundamentalists rather than Catholics, and perhaps had our own troubles that assured our chastity was not at risk, and also specialized in giving authority figures the answers they wanted, let me assure you it isn’t that outlandish. I had my “nervous breakdown” – my first two, in fact – before I realized, courtesy of the psychiatric profession, that chastity was a symptom, though of what, I was never sure.

So I have some appreciation for what Kennedy went through. That he went through it at the hands of the government, in the name of some bizarrely intertwined combination of morality and national security, is tragic.

Just recently I saw the film The Imitation Game, and by coincidence a rerun of the older Fat Man and Little Boy. Both of these were set in the WWII era. Both involved men older and with more experience in the world than the 19-year-old Kennedy, but were nonetheless ground up by military authority, here or in the UK, in the name of national security. How we treat our heroes! Worse, how we treat our kids, on their way to becoming heroes, should they make the mistake of entering the military in a state of earnest innocence.

Pushcart 2015: Mary Hood, “Breaking It” (Non-fiction) from The Georgia Review, Spring 2013

 
 
From boredom, a way to keep me alert on a daily walk on a path I have traveled for years, I set quests. This day I noted things blue. Nothing man-made. I saw at first nothing that qualified. Blue is my hardest color.
 

And after this walk, blue’s gonna be even harder.

There’s a stylistic flair to this short essay, clearly emphasizing the “creative” part of “creative non-fiction”. Perhaps “meditation” would fit as a descriptive. Each paragraph is broken up by white space, giving the impression of individual thoughts, related but also self-contained. The language is beautiful, varying from straightforward narration to deeper considerations of what is being narrated.

Quest as a game taken seriously strips irrelevancy just as a real pilgrimage does – nothing I cherish and winnow with my eyes is mine, nothing I claim with conqueror’s glance is real estate; I was just passing time on the surface, with a little shallow seeking for what would get me through.

Hood’s quest on this day ends up distinctly un-shallow.

Since it’s such a short essay focused on a couple of images, it would be spoiler-ish to reveal those images beyond saying it’s the juxtaposition of a stand of pines destroyed by beetles, and a bird caught on a fence of hog wire. These events allow for consideration of larger issues: the human effect on nature, sure, but also the difference between spotlighting a single victim and presenting statistics in numbers too large to understand, a difference long understood by charity marketers who know we will be moved to respond with a check to the story of one starving child more readily than to hearing the huge numbers of children who have already died. Towerkill is something we hear about on the news (or I guess most people do; I’d never heard of it), but one bluebird is a different story. And, perhaps the all-inclusive theme of legality vs ethicality.

I didn’t realize until after I’d read the essay a few times that each sentence matters, each image, each thought, builds up to the final paragraphs, to an overall thought-cloud that encompasses blue, eleven, quests, insects and pines, birds and fences, and related to all these – people, and what we do, what we can do, what we could do. It’s kind of overwhelming, really. I’m amazed at how much is in there, how, on a frame of evocative language and imagery, a wealth of interrelated musings have been somehow compressed and streamlined into four pages. To do the essay justice, I would have to quote it all. I think that’s good writing.

And as I read these essays, I say over and over, “I don’t particularly like nature writing, but…” Maybe what I don’t like are routine essays, the beautiful but routine “seascapes” (and, all too often, cute animal portraits) of the written word.

I still remember, 30 years later, an entire 90-minute linguistics class examining the word “broken” and its close relatives. “The window broke” is absurd; windows don’t just break, they are broken, but this word has a way of removing action from consequence, and leaving intent questionable. Beetles don’t intend to break trees; we don’t intend to break birds. Does that reduce the loss?

Pushcart 2015: Pacifique Irankunda, “Playing at Violence” (non-fiction) from The American Scholar #82.3

Image from Tom Clancy's "Ghost Recon Future Soldier" video game

Image from Tom Clancy’s “Ghost Recon Future Soldier” video game

On a fall afternoon a few years ago, inside my dorm room at Deerfield Academy, I started hearing gunshots. I had been warned that in America people hunt with guns. I comforted myself with this thought at first, but the sounds went on and on and grew increasingly familiar. It can’t be hunting, I thought. Why would anyone be hunting on the grounds of a Massachusetts prep school?

One of literature’s enduring techniques is defamiliarization. Sometimes it’s used in historical fiction, such as in Naomi Williams’ “Snow Men“, an account of the Tlingit Indians’ first encounter with Europeans in the 18th century (her novel Landfalls, coming this summer, will expand on the story). Science fiction and fantasy makes heavy use of the technique as well; some of the most beloved Star Trek characters, such as Data and Mr. Spock, are fashioned as mirrors by which humanity can see itself (not that it seems to have helped much).

Irankunda is the mirror in this very personal essay (available online), reviewing his experience as a Burundi teen newly arrived at an American school. He holds the mirror up to our tendency towards violent recreation, specifically, first-person-shooter video games.

Irankunda knows a thing or two about first-person violence. He tells us about the war that filled his life for over a decade, as well as what we might see as lesser violence: Burundi-style school hazing. It’s in his exploration of the hazing that I truly felt pulled into this story, since he intimates that the bully needs his victim, even considers him a friend, and just doesn’t have the empathy to realize that it’s no fun being the target of this type of aggression.

I lived through 13 years of civil war. I know that violence can become almost a culture in itself, and that it twists not all but many of the people who are trapped in it. Of course, not all the children who grew up in the war became violent. How you responded to your own resentments, whether you seethed with thoughts of revenge, how your parents, neighbors, and friends responded to the bloodshed—all of these things helped determine your own taste for violence. I was lucky. Many others were not.

Violent video games have become a divisive point in American culture; it seems there are those who feel they cause real-time violence, and those who think that’s nonsense. I’ve never played a shooting video game, or any modern video game since PacMan, not even Angry Birds, since I don’t have a gizmo. While I’m very curious about Portal and puzzle-solving games, I have no desire to place myself in a combat or crime situation. It isn’t so much that violence bothers me (though my tolerance for tv and movie violence has decreased over the years); I’m just not that interested.

I can’t really say what the difference is between me and a player of war games, other than preference. If I had a kid who played shooters all day, I’d be a little concerned. I don’t know if I’d have reason to be; lots of people play them and don’t end up shooting up schools. I lean towards the “they’re attractive to those who are prone to violence” rather than the “they cause violence” side. But I have no real basis for that, other than a recent study that showed no correlation, let alone causation.

But there’s still this guy from Burundi wondering why we’re so obsessed with violence. Be honest: though video games are more participatory than spectator sports, we love our movies bloody as well. Boxing and football are big business, and the blood (and permanent neurological damage) is real, not pixels on a screen. Revolutionary and Civil War reenactments, though blood isn’t involved (except accidentally) are cultural heritage in some families. The news media’s dictum “If it bleeds, it leads” exists for a reason.

Game journalist Gus Mastrapa read Irakunda’s article, and considered something I’ve often thought about: “Part of me wonders if I haven’t come to appreciate games about a particular kind of struggle because I’ve found a somewhat comfortable place in my life.” I’m not sure that would hold up in an empirical study, but it’d be interesting to find out. Irankunda obviously doesn’t have a taste for video gore; he wonders (as do I) if Chrysostom, the bully, would. Then he thinks of the soldiers who turned his world into nonstop terror; would they like on-screen violence? I wonder: would a video game give them a safer outlet and remove them from real-life violence, or merely inflame them to more bloodshed?

I think back to the documentary film “The Act of Killing”, examining the present-day reaction of Anwar Congo to the participatory reenactment of his past: in the 1960’s he was a “gangster” responsible for the slaughter of thousands of innocent citizens at the behest of a corrupt government. He seemed to feel genuine remorse, both in the present and over the past. Was that a matter of maturity, of having seen more of the world and thus being less willing to destroy parts of it? Or is it a matter of personality, the nugget of repentance in him? Are other former mass slaughterers more sanguine about their role?

This simple essay raises multiple questions. If the answers existed already, we wouldn’t need to ask questions.

From Deerfield Academy, Irankunda went on to study psychology and political science at Williams College, and now works for educational and mental health services for Burundi; his essay won the Elie Wiesel Prize in ethics. He’s got his life’s work cut out for him; lots of human psychology could come out of the study our appetite for violence. Maybe, with his experiences in mind, he’ll discover something that will help keep us from turning violence against each other.

Pushcart 2015: Joni Tevis, “What the Body Knows” (non-fiction) from Orion #34.6

Orion art by Ursula Schneider: "Demarcation Point"

Orion art by Ursula Schneider: “Demarcation Point”

I had tried to prepare – trained, researched gear, plotted distances – but as the little plane surfed and dropped in the thermals, I saw that it wasn’t enough. “What made you want to visit the Refuge?” the pilot asked, and my throat closed. Cliffy mountains on either side, and below. Snow caught in their creases. And marks where hooves had struck stone. “Got a bee in my bonnet,” I said, and as soon as I heard the words I want to take them back. Why did I want to go? I wasn’t sure. More than just curiosity, although I did want to see what all the fuss was about. Wanted to see a place with a bounty on his head, a place outside my ken, a place with no trees or roads or (now, midsummer) darkness. In the cockpit, unlock it swung from a knob, and a picture of the pilot’s kids covered a dial. He belonged here, not me. But the truth was, I had to see the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for myself: if we waited, I somehow knew that it would be too late.

Maybe I’m still stuck on the last story. Maybe it’s a New Year thing, Janus looking back and forward at the same time. Maybe the symmetry just appeals to me, or I’m really eager to find a theme. Maybe it’s in most good writing, and I just haven’t noticed it until now. But for whatever reason, I see past-present-future again in this piece.

I’m not a big fan of nature writing – or of nature, for that matter. To me, nature is the heat, the cold, sneezy pollen, bugs, and please chain me safely to my computer again. Nature writing frequently waxes poetic and tends towards the panegyric, but how many different ways can you ooh and aah over the majesty of mountains or the interdependence of critters in the wild? I am, however, quite fond of information, and of metaphor, so tell me how the mountains and critters got there, and relate it to some aspect of human history, psychology, life, whatever – and I’m with you.

Tevis includes significant information, and builds in metaphors everywhere.

The doctrine of signatures, which once dominated medical thought, holds that the plant’s appearance reveals its use. Nettle has a milky sap, so it’s good for lactating women. Pine needles resemble front teeth, so a tea made from them promotes healthy gums. This is the same idea behind what anthropologist James Frazer calls “sympathetic magic” in The Golden Bough, his landmark study of belief and ritual. The key tenet of sympathetic magic, he says, “is that like produces like… And effect resembles its cause.”

If like produces like, then where we live, what we see, who we know, becomes crucial. We are not just known by the company we keep, we’re shaped by it. I think it can also serve as a repellent, however: “I don’t want to be that; I want something different” may have generated more change than anything else. Moving away may not be moving towards, but at least it’s moving. First, of course, we have to know something different exists, which is why literature is such a good idea.

We also hear about other interactions with the Arctic over time and culture. “When a person harvests a medicinal plant in the mountains, besides speaking correctly to it, he should also leave a small gift, such as a thread or a match or a bit of tobacco, in place of the plant” is a bit of wisdom from a local native tribe: give something back in its most concrete form. That sounds like an attitude worth cultivating in general, an attitude we’ve bulldozed over for the past century. She tells of mirages recorded in exploration history: “…the men see their distant camps hovering above the horizon. The angle of the light and the curve of the earth made their far-off colleagues seem to walk upside down, heads to the tundra and feet treading thin air.…” The National Snow and Ice Data Center documents many of these phenomena, commonly known as Fata Morgana, which are possible anywhere on earth, but most common towards the poles. Can we trust what we see? And I learned the Arctic is, in the summer, plagued by mosquitos desperate for animal blood. I told you, nature means bugs.

But a non-fiction essay is more than an educational treatise.

As I stand there on the bank, the river leaps along, slicing a new channel for itself, carrying ancient meltwater and grit, catkins and leaves, swelling after rain, tugging the valley this way and that. I cup my hand and drink, wipe grime from my face. Make me different, is the thought I can’t put into words. I don’t want to be the same after this trip. Bolder, maybe, less concerned with things I can’t control.

Tevis’ life is about to be very different, though it’s unclear in the essay at just what point she realized she was just slightly pregnant: “Brooding over these things, eyes scanning the tundra, I sense something strange taking root deep within myself, and insistent wriggle of thought I dare not speak aloud.” Welcome to the future, while standing in the present learning about the past. A future that may include the Refuge, or may not, depending on decisions we will make, on priorities we will decide.

Orion, the original publishing journal, is of course known for “nature writing” but it’s mission is broader than that: “It is Orion’s fundamental conviction that humans are morally responsible for the world in which we live, and that the individual comes to sense this responsibility as he or she develops a personal bond with nature.” They provide an excellent online interview (audio) with Tevis, in which she talks about how the structure of the piece took place over a significant time, and how she chose to fold in the pregnancy. She had a sign over her desk: “Keep it strange” so she wouldn’t “edit out the discomfort, stress, confusion.” And she says something that I’ve come to live recently: “There’s value in going to a place that really is too hard for you….” I might put that sign over my desk.

Eventually, we’ll register for gear at the baby superstore, staring gobsmacked at the wall of wipes and rubber nipples and nail clippers kitted out with tiny flashlights. If only we were outfitting the trip to the Arctic, I’ll think. At least then we’d know what to pack.
     Memories of the truck stop at Coldfoot will come flooding back to me, suggesting the many ways that a chore in a like ours could go wrong. A framed collage of disaster snapshots hung on the wall next to the pay phone. Big rigs jackknife into a ditch; two trucks loading a mangled SUV.… In for a penny, in for a pound; if the inclines don’t get you, the frost heaves will. But what can you do? You can’t stay here.
     And so we’ll tick our boxes, take our chances, and exit the store to face the mystery of what’s to come.

Raising a child is too hard for anyone. And yet we’re here.

From the past of glaciers and rocks, to the decisions of the present, to the promise and anxiety of the future. Nice job. Maybe I like nature writing more than I thought.

Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 3 – The Novel and the Short Story

Sharon Burgmayer, "Interface"

Sharon Burgmayer, “Interface”

My assumption is that when we discuss the differences between long fiction and short fiction, we must discuss basic differences in the epistemology of the two forms, that is, the way they attempt to “know” reality. The short story is short first of all because of the kind of experience or reality embodied in it. And the kind of experience we find in the short story reflects a mode of knowing that differs essentially from the mode of knowing we find in the novel. My thesis is that long fiction, by its very length, demands both a subject matter and a set of artistic conventions that primarily derive from, and in turn establish, the primacy of “experience” conceptually created and considered; whereas short fiction, by its length and tradition, demands both a subject matter and a set of artistic conventions that derive from and establish the primacy of “an experience,” as John Dewey has distinguished these terms, directly and emotionally created and encountered.
 

~~Charles May, “The Novel and the Short Story”, I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 3

I’ll admit up front that I’ve never understood the distinction between short story and novel as do those who have a more thorough grasp of the theoretical underpinnings of both. I think this chapter of May’s book – with a little help from John Dewey and Isak Dinesen – has helped close that gap a bit.

Start with Dewey. I’ve always thought of him in terms of educational theory, but here, Art as Experience is the focal point particularly Chapter III, Having An Experience. May applies Dewey’s separation of “experience” and “an experience” to the novel and short story, respectively. Dewey’s distinction:

Experience occurs continuously, because the interaction of live creature and environing conditions is involved in the very process of living…. Oftentimes, however, the experience had is inchoate. Things are experienced but not in such a way that they are composed into an experience.…
             In contrast with such experience, we have an experience when the material experienced runs its course to fulfillment. Then and then only is it integrated within and demarcated in the general stream of experience from other experiences. A piece of work is finished in a way that is satisfactory; a problem receives solutions; the game is played through…. Such an experience is a whole and carries with it its own individualizing quality and self-sufficiency. It is an experience….
              An experience has a unity that gives it its name, that meal, that storm, that rupture of friendship. The existence of this unity is constituted by a single quality that pervades the entire experience…
 

~~ John Dewey, Art as Experience

As I read it (and, always keep in mind, I’ve been known to head off my own track from time to time), May sees the territory the novel covers as experience, whereas the short story focuses on an experience. Much of that seems to be a by-product of length. A novel, which might be read over the course of days (or weeks, or who knows, months), has as its foundation experience. Theoretically, there is a force of unity, but there are sub-plots, character-defining scenes, backstories and expositions to cover before the central thrust of that unity can be delivered. A story, on the other hand, is intended to be read in one sitting; the experience of reading is itself an experience, and the story recounts an experience. A great deal of experience might be omitted – we don’t know the heroine’s relationship with her mother or the hero’s favorite childhood toy, no matter how character-revealing it is, unless it is central to the “an experience being recounted. It’s a slightly different angle on the “unity” required of the short story, as described in May’s Chapter 1 on genre.

As I was paging through Stanford’s Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (often referred to as “Plato”) to make sure I was understanding Dewey correctly, I stumbled over an idea I’d overlooked in the original chapter:

Dewey believed it unfortunate that no term covers the act of production and the act of appreciation combined as one thing…. production and consumption should not be seen as separate….
                Dewey believed that art brings together the same doing/undergoing relation that makes an experience what it is. Something is artistic when the qualities of the result control the process of production. ….Aesthetic satisfaction must be linked to the activity that gave rise to it. For example the taste of the epicure includes qualities that depend on reference to the manner of production of the thing enjoyed.
 

~~Stanford Online Encyclopedia of Philosophy (“Plato”), “Dewey’s Aesthetics

This brought me to Isak Dinesen, aka Karen Blixen. Though I suppose it’s the other way around; Dinesen is the pseudonym, but the name by which I always think of her.

Dinesen’s “The Cardinal’s First Tale” is used as a reference point in this chapter (and in a future chapter); I’d already read it in preparation, and I’ll discuss it presently. Part of that story, indeed, is a clear explanation of the difference between novel and story by one of the characters, making it self-referential in a way I adore. But the above exegesis on Dewey brought to mind another wonderful Dinesen work, my first encounter with her, in fact, though originally through film rather than through text: “Babette’s Feast.” I haven’t read it in quite some time, so I’m a little hazy on the details, but what remains is this: Everything in that story comes down to a magical meal that redeems lives and talents tragically wasted by circumstance; and the line, “Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist, ‘Give me the chance to do my very best.'” The meal is an experience, rising far above culinary delight; in fact, at first the sisters are determined to stoically reject any pleasure it might bring, out of some notion of Christian asceticism, but it is the “an experience” that triumphs, lifting all to that encounter with the sacred. Reading the story is, likewise, anan experience.

“The Cardinal’s First Tale” is also an experience for the reader, and for the characters in the story. The Cardinal of the story must answer a penitent’s question: “Who are you?” The story is wonderful; I found a chapter from Susan Brantly’s book Understanding Isak Dinesen to be helpful along with May’s notes.

The Cardinal of the title tells a self-referential story to answer the question, “Who am I?” The story-within-the-story itself is great, a tale of an overwhelmed teenage princess impregnated both physically and spiritually (the latter being an idea I discovered in, and have enthusiastically embraced from, Brantly’s analysis) to the point where she delivers twins. The twins are regarded in classic opposition: a studious Priest-to-be for the Prince, an artistic sensualist for the Princess. There’s a bit of a mystery which leads to the revelation of the artistic unity of sacred and profane.

When the Cardinal has finished relating his tale of the twins, he talks to his penitent at length about story versus novel, using the very tale he’s just told as an example of the centrality of plot. She’s a little dismayed by the way “story” knocks people – characters – around, separates lovers, puts enemies together, and so forth (this reminds me of Steve Almond’s prescription in his teeny-tiny self-published book of flash and writing advice, This Won’t Take But a Minute, Honey: “[I]t is your sworn duty to send your characters barreling into the danger of their own desires”), but he assures her, that the story will provide (“Love your characters” means to give them a story to inhabit) and that it is story, first, last, and always, that makes us human:
 

“Mistake me not,” said the cardinal, “the literature of which we are speaking [the novel]– the literature of individuals, if we may call it so – is a noble art, a great, earnest and ambitious human product. But it is a human product. The divine art is the story. In the beginning was the story. At the end we shall be privileged to view, and review, it – and that is what his named the day of judgment….
              “Hard and cruel as it may seem,” said the cardinal, “yet we, who hold of our high office as keepers and watchmen to the story, may tell you, fairly, that to its human characters there is salvation in nothing else in the universe. If you tell them – you compassionate and accommodating human readers – that they may bring their distress and anguish before any other authority, you will be cruelly deceiving and mocking them. For within our whole universe the story only has authority to answer that cry of heart of its characters, that’s one cry of heart of each of them: “Who am I?’
 

~~Isak Dinesen, “The Cardinal’s First Tale” from Last Tales, 1957

As I read that last line, I felt a great deal of similarity, in tone, to a line from “Babette’s Feast”: “Through all the world there goes one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me a chance to do my best.” But even more, this harks back to May’s “Introduction” chapter, in reference to C.S. Lewis’ ideas on the basic human conflict, “which is the battle between the sacred and the profane, between union and separation.” In this story, the sacred and profane are literally embodied in the Dionysian/Apollonian twins, their union unintentional but nonetheless profound, surviving even the physical destruction of one.

An experience. I love that phrase, as I understand it. We all have many moment like that, of course; a conversation that resonates for decades, a magical night when the stars seem aligned. They don’t have to be universally pleasant, I don’t think. I can remember, as a teenager under the spell of an absurd crush, seeing the object of my feelings with another girl, and realizing they looked right together, in a way he and I would never look right. As devastating as it was, it was also highly instructive; forty years later, I still remember the color of the sky and the feel of the grass. During each of my once-a-decade experiments to see if I still suck at writing fiction, I try to capture it in prose, and fail each time. But at least now I know what to call it, and that, with a plot that makes the moment surprising yet inevitable, it belongs in a short story.

I’m not sure why I never read more of Dinesen’s stories; I quite enjoyed this story. With so much to read, a lot ends up deferred, but I’d like to revisit her at a later time. And, of course, I’ll keep reading Prof. May’s book; I’m quite enjoying it as well, and encountering numerous wonderful treasures in its pages.

Charles May: I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies, Chapter 2 – History and the Short Story

Boccaccio: The Decameron - Miniature by Taddeo Crivelli, manuscript c. 1467

Boccaccio: The Decameron – Miniature by Taddeo Crivelli, manuscript c. 1467

My own study of the short story is based on the assumption that a group of literary conventions cluster around short fiction because of its shortness and its relationship to other genres throughout its history. … The one thing that does not change is the fact that short stories are both stories and short. What does change, however, is the understanding and recognition of what makes a story a story and how the short story writer manipulates the limitations of shortness.

Having established some guidelines for “the genre” of short story in Chapter 1, May now turns to looking at the development of the form over time, with a more historical approach to the development of the short story: its origins in Boccaccio’s Decameron, written in the Renaissance and embraced a few centuries later by the Romantics; the nineteenth-century period of development showcased by Poe and Hawthorne; and the modern tale of Chekhov and Carver. I’m a bit disappointed not to see any indication of the more post-modern take on story, where narrative itself is optional, but, after all, the current historical period is still open. In any case, since my weakest knowledge is of the past, this is a good place for me to focus. There’s some overlap with Chapter 1, as these are all previously published academic essays collected in this volume, but the focus is one of time, not genre.

A good place to begin, in any history is the beginning; but what was the first short story?

Perhaps the most equitable and yet the most manageable starting point is that era when short narratives, written in prose first moved out of the realm of popular oral folk tale and religious allegory and qualified as a form of individual human art. Most historians agree that such a point was reached with the publication of Boccaccio’s revolutionary collection The Decameron in the middle of the fourteenth century.

This surprised me. In high school, I was taught Guy de Maupassant was the first short story writer; in college, that shifted to Poe. The Renaissance? Interesting…

I can see the point, though. At the time of Boccaccio, religious allegory was the major formal literature in Europe (and we are taking a highly Eurocentric view of literature throughout this book). But folk art will not be denied, and “vulgar popular folktales” consisting of “anecdotes, bits of gossip, vulgar jokes, and ribald tales without established traditions of narrative procedures and rhetorical devices” (pg. 31) coexisted with the approved forms. Boccaccio’s achievement was to combine these approaches: to write a tale with a narrative structure and a point, but to base characters and events on real life people and situations instead of idealized visions that existed only to personify morality. Part of the task, May says, was to ” transform meaningless everyday reality into a meaningful teleological event with a formal unifying pattern” – to create the inevitable surprise that underlies successful fiction.

I have not read The Decameron nor do I particularly wish to (I’m about to dive into Dante via another MOOC, and I only have so much verbal energy, not to mention time for intense reading). Overall, the structure of the whole reminds me of The Canterbury Tales, which has its share of vulgarity, as well as significant resentment of higher religious authorities (those who think popular culture today is a mess should check out Chaucer): an assortment of people find themselves together (in a village escaping the plague-ridden city, or on a pilgrimage to Canterbury), and tell stories to pass the time. Canterbury was, of course a poem, not prose, but the comparison remains.

I did read one story chosen at random (I.6, An honest man, with a chance pleasantry, putteth to shame the perverse hypocrisy of the religious orders), and perhaps saw the “poetic justice” and “ironic patterning” to which May refers, as incorporated into the plot. This, he says, marks a shift from the religious allegory, which exemplifies a religious ideal thus refers to an external moral point, to story form, in which the plot takes on the burden of creating meaning by the structuring of events. In the story, a winemaker is taken to task by religious authorities for claiming he has a wine fit for Christ to drink, and is assigned to eternal torment; on payment of a fee to the official, the sin is mediated. He later invokes a Bible quote to embarrass the official by pointing out the greed and gluttony of the cleric’s habit of feeding only his table scraps in a broth to the poor, thus hoisting the man of god on his own petard, so to speak – the “reversal of intention” May links to such stories as “The Gift of the Magi.”

The basic romantic tendency is to naturalize the supernatural and to humanize the divine. The return to romance of the nineteenth century is a return with a difference; the formulaic stories remain much the same, but they are now given a new basis of authority – the subjectivity of the teller – even as the story events themselves are presented as if they were objective events in the phenomenal world….This focus on the individual perspective creates a new tension in the old tale – undermining the mythic or supernatural authority of the story and placing an increasing emphasis on the relativity of reality, the ambiguity of the event, and the skepticism of the teller.

When I read this, I thought of the Greek & Roman Mythology MOOC I recently completed. Peter Struck of the University of Pennsylvania talked about instances of Vergil’s “rationalizing impulse” in The Aeneid: is Dido’s undying love of Aeneas due to the meddling of the gods, or to the sympathetic framing of the hero caring for his son; is Anchises’ appearance in a dream a visitation from the spirits, or a psychological manifestation of Aeneas himself? I think that’s something like the tension analyzed here.

May then turns to the Romantic period of the 19th century. There was, in fact, a resurgence of interest in Boccaccio at this time, and The Decameron was again of interest to scholars. To illustrate the Romantic period, I chose to read Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” which May mentions as an example of a work which “presents a situation that is seemingly supernatural and symbolically significant, but which the narrator simultaneously undermines with his skeptical ironic point of view.” In the Introduction, he also mentioned it was the source of the title of this collection of essays: the main character, teased and harassed, finally breaks his tolerance with an outcry: “Leave me alone! Why do you insult me?” and, though he is never aware of it, those words have a profound effect on one of the bullies and allow Gogol to spell out the direction of the tale: upcoming revelation of hypocrisy and artifice.

In these moving words, other words resounded –”I am thy brother.” And the young man covered his face with his hand; and many a time afterwards, in the course of his life, shuddered at seeing how much inhumanity there is in man, how much savage coarseness is concealed beneath delicate, refined worldliness, and even, O God! in that man whom the world acknowledges as honourable and noble.

 
~~ Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol, “The Overcoat”

I wish we could all have those moments at critical times – when an abused child braces herself for a blow, when a minimum-wage worker is told how motivating poverty is, when a young boy cries, “Don’t shoot!” perhaps. But back to the story, and the tension between hints of the supernatural, against the ironic distance of the narrator.

References to the supernatural are scattered throughout, from the granting of Akakiy Akakievitch Bashmatchkin’s very name (was it the fate of opening the calendar to certain days, or merely a family name handed down – or a mother’s disregard for her child?) to the “involuntary sensation of fear, as if his heart warned him of some evil” just before his cloak is stolen (the presence of a wraith, or the usual fear of being in a deserted, strange area late at night?), to the rumored haunting of the Kalinkin Bridge by a dead man (or was it the same thief – was there even a thief at all, given that the coachman saw nothing amiss, or was it the magistrate’s conscience that tricked him into creating a thief out of the wind?). All of this, as May says, is related by a highly visible narrator who maintains a tone of reason throughout. Yet the “poetic justice” of the second theft somewhat relieves the sadness of the first – I say “somewhat” since, after all, Bashmatchkin is still dead.

May revisits Poe’s discussion of aesthetic unity as the primary requirement of the short story, adding “the psychological obsession embodied in a first-person narrator” to the array of techniques used in the nineteenth century. Just the mention of “The Tell-Tale Heart” is enough to illustrate this point. I wonder if the repetitive nature of Poe’s poetic forms, such as “The Raven” and “Annabelle Lee”, suggested or merely dovetailed into this notion.

We move forward to the era of the “modern” short story:

…[R]eality in the modern short story seems to be a purely objective event, even as at the same time the intense selectivity practiced by Chekhov, Hemingway, and Raymond Carver results in an intensification of reality that no longer seems objective and real, but what some critics have called “hyperrealism”…. reality is so attenuated and restricted (rather than developed and expanded as in the realistic novel) that it takes on an hallucinatory, dreamlike effect….objects and events are transformed from mere matter into meaningful by the motivating force of the story’s own thematic and structural demands.

I chose to re-read two stories as exemplars for this section: Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” and Carver’s “Chef’s House”; neither are explicitly mentioned in this chapter, but they seem to fit the bill, both of the above hyperrealism, and of what May refers to as the movement of the character from ignorance to knowledge.

In Hemingway, the landscape itself becomes symbolic of the conflict between the couple. As such, it’s constantly emphasized: the arid, sun-bleached hills on one side, the lush greenery on the other. I was always taught that the dry side signified barrenness, thus the option of abortion, which the man prefers, while the other side is associated with life should the pregnancy continue. That’s fine – but I’ve always wondered if the man’s viewpoint might reverse those, if he sees the stark side as his life burdened with woman and child, while living will forever be at his back. Not to excuse him – I certainly see him as a bit of a bully and shirker in this – but to mix things up a little. Two people look at the same landscape, and have opposite associations. Different readers often come to very different conclusions about this story: just what was decided, if anything?

In the context of this chapter, I’m more interested in the movement of both characters from ignorance to knowledge. The knowledge, I think, is not one of which side to choose: each knows more about the other, and more about him/herself and the extent of his/her power in their relationship. I also suspect this relationship is doomed.

“Chef’s House” shows another couple moving towards knowledge of the other; it’s a favorite of mine. I read it a couple of years ago having seen it mentioned in Prof. May’s blog in connection with another story. I see here also the landscape, the details, exaggerated and symbolicized to this dreamlike state. I said at the time: “you can see the ocean, but you have to look beyond the access road and freeway – the ocean is on the other side of ‘access’ and ‘free’.” There’s a double negotiation: in the beginning, Wes convinces Edna to come live in Chef’s House with him, and at the end, Edna tries to convince Wes that the loss of the house need not be the end of their idyllic (to her) summer. Wes prevails in both cases, as each discovers what he/she wants, and whether or not the other can participate in that goal.

In neither case of these “modern” stories is the supernatural, or some higher moral principle, or even a narrator, an element. The story is in the setting, the characters, and the choices they make, the actions they take.

The one thing that does not change is the fact that short stories are both stories and short. What does change, however, is the understanding and recognition of what makes a story a story and how the short story writer manipulates the limitations of shortness.

May’s historical view of the short story ends here. I wonder, on reflection, if the emergence of the importance of form in narrative over the past 20 (50?) years is a new trend, or just another glint in the window. I’m a fan of unusual narrative devices: lists, dialog captures, found text, instructions. Most recently, comix (aka “graphic stories”) which have a grammar of their own – One Story opened up a world I’d previously dismissed with Matt Madden’s “Drawn Onward” in Issue #182. I look forward to new things.

I also look forward to Prof. May’s Chapter 3, “The Novel and the Short Story.” My life is about to be complicated by concurrent MOOCs, plus the publication of BASS in October, so I can’t promise a schedule; it will happen, however. Inevitably, surprisingly.

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.