Friday, June 29, 2012

Recently updated

Parker and Barab tonight in NYC Now with a link to a New York Times review.

Ice-cream cones

[“Ice cream cone melting outside rolled up window of air conditioned car. (Note intact cone inside).” Photograph by John Dominis. Fort Worth, Texas, August 1952. From the Life Photo Archive.]

But look: the inside cone too is melting. The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

The temperature here in east-central Illinois: 102 °F. The heat index: 115 °F.

Related reading
Wallace Stevens, “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” (Poets.org)

Neatening up


[Before and after.]

What I’m about to suggest might be common knowledge, but perhaps not. The paint-can tool in an image editor offers an easy way to neaten up a scan from Google Books (or from anywhere). Choose a color (perhaps with an eyedropper tool) and pour. Digital artifacts, begone.

The image above is from Google Books, an illustration of the Robinson Reminder pocket notebook. I used the paint-can tool in a more elaborate way last week after scanning a page from Hart’s Guide to New York City. When I pressed hard to get the text on a verso page, chunks of the text from the recto page came through. So I aimed and poured, and poured again and again.

[I like Seashore, a free image-editor for OS X.]

Quick 50 Writing Tools

From Roy Peter Clark and The Poynter Institute: Quick 50 Writing Tools, a bare-bones presentation of the content of Clark’s book Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer (2008).

Some of the advice in this PDF (“Limit self-criticism in early drafts”) might be helpful as is. Some (“Climb up and down the ladder of abstraction”) might remain cryptic without further explanation. But like they say, it’s a start. And there is, after all, a book.

[“Like they say”: for me this phrase always recalls the poet Robert Creeley. You can find it three times for instance in this Paris Review interview.]

NYPL, a series of tubes

The New York Public Library is a series of tubes, sort of (via Pete Lit).

Related reading
Series of tubes (Wikipedia)

Mac keyboard shortcuts

From Apple: a page with a gazillion keyboard shortcuts for OS X. A wonderful thing about the Mac is that you can get along very well with just a handful of these. But for those who want more, there are more.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Chrome for iOS

Google’s Chrome browser is now available for iOS. On my first-generation iPad, Chrome is fast, very fast. The browser is minimalist in design, which is good, and minimalist in options, which is not so good. There is, for instance, no way to remove the microphone icon from the address-and-search bar (the first-generation iPad has no microphone). And there is, of course, no way to add an ad-blocking extension or any other extension.

My iOS browser of choice is iCab Mobile, which blocks ads (if you so choose) with filters. Browsing is slower than with Chrome, but having fewer distractions means a lot to me when I’m reading online. For now, I’m sticking with iCab Mobile.



Given Apple-Google hostilities, I have to wonder: is listing Chrome under Utilities someone’s idea of a joke?

[Re: “Address-and-search bar”: I can’t bring myself to use the Google term omnibox.]

Robinson Reminders in print


[New Yorker, March 18, 1944.]

“Jot it down — Do it — Tear it out — Live notes only!” It’s like Getting Things Done with perforations. Note the clever names for the other products: Billminders and Miss Gadabout. Miss Gadabout!

Google Books has dingy-looking scans of Robinson Reminder advertisements from as early as 1915. The slogan — “Live notes only,” minus the exclamation point — was already in place. That slogan does seem to go with early-twentieth-century notions of efficiency. Clear the decks: history is bunk, right?

Here, from 1921, sharpened, straightened, and neatened up, is the patent for the Robinson Reminder:



If you cannot get enough of the Robinson Reminder, A Continuous Lean has a post with some fine photographs.

Previously on Orange Crate Art
Pocket notebook sighting (a Robinson Reminder in the movies)

Refrigerator inventory

A soon-to-be-published book on material culture and American households suggests a possible correlation between the number of magnets on a refrigerator and the amount of stuff in a household.

I of course had to inventory the two available surfaces of our refrigerator. The results:



What’s startling: this number correlates exactly with the amount of stuff in our household.

Taking a refrigerator inventory might be more difficult than it would seem: so many items remain invisible, even when you’re looking right at them, or at least when I am.

Still a BFD

Supreme Court Lets Health Law Largely Stand (New York Times)

The shirt is here.

[This post marks my happiness and surprise about this ruling. If you want to debate health-care reform, please, not here.]

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Recently updated

Pocket notebook sighting Sergeant Mickey Ferguson’s notebook is a Robinson Reminder. Thanks, Adair!

Kuru Toga at Staples

Elaine’s eagle eye spotted the 0.5mm Uni Kuru Toga at Staples today. That’s the news: the Kuru Toga mechanical pencil, once available in the United States only from specialty retailers such as Jet Pens, is now for sale at Staples ($5.99). All that’s missing is the dense text of the Japanese packaging.

What makes the Kuru Toga unusual (and unusually good): the lead rotates as one writes, minimizing breakage and keeping the point sharp.

Here, from Dave’s Mechanical Pencils, is a 2008 review of the Kuru Toga, with 109 comments. Pencils are serious business.

“Aggregating with attitude”?

Me, in a post this past Monday about a New York Times article about cities selling advertising space on fire trucks, police cars, and so on:

Life imitates David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: in the novel’s post-millennial world of Subsidized Time, the United States government makes up for lost revenue by offering corporate bidders the naming rights for years. Most of the novel takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.
Another writer, this past Monday, beginning a post about the same Times article:
In Infinite Jest (okay, no, I haven’t actually read the whole thing, okay?), author David Foster Wallace posits a world in which the naming rights to each calendar year are for sale (inevitably, to corporations); the book’s action takes place mostly during The Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment (Y.D.A.U.).
The motto for the other writer’s site: “Aggregating with attitude.”

5:00 p.m.: The other writer has assured me that my post is not a source.

Parker and Barab tonight in NYC

If you’re in New York City or environs: there’s a concert tonight at Symphony Space with the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra, “The American Scene.” Among the works to be performed: Songs of Perfect Propriety, words by Dorothy Parker, music by Seymour Barab.

Elaine Fine is hoping that someone who attends this performance will write about it. If you have no platform of your own from which to do so, follow this link to Elaine’s post and leave your thoughts in the form of a comment.

June 29: There’s a review in the New York Times.

[Orange Crate Art is a Seymour-and-Margie-Barab-friendly site.]

How to improve writing (no. 38)

I’ve been reading cereal boxes at breakfast since childhood. But it’s only in recent years that I’ve started to edit while eating. Consider this sentence, from a list of “simple things to feel good each day” on a box of Post Shredded Wheat:¹

Show thanks to your local neighborhood by picking up one piece of trash every day.
This sentence invites small- and large-scale rethinking. Small-scale:
Show thanks to your local neighborhood by picking up one piece of trash every day.
But there’s a larger problem: this recommendation makes little sense. If there’s lots of trash to be had, picking up one piece per day hardly seems like an expression of gratitude. If anything, the gesture seems a bit passive-aggressive. Imagine this sort of effort in a different context:
Show thanks to your local spouse by picking up one piece of clothing from the pile on the floor every day.
I think the local spouse would feel that she is being baited.

Here’s a more helpful recommendation:
Care for your neighborhood by picking up trash.
And now if you’ll excuse me, I need to remove some items from a nearby floor — books, not clothes.

¹ Yes, “simple things to do to feel good each day” makes better sense. But here too there’s a larger problem, because the list includes things to do only occasionally — babysitting a friend’s children, for instance.

[This post is no. 38 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose. Post is a cereal offender when it comes to lousy writing.]

Related reading

All How to improve writing posts

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Pocket notebook sighting


[Click for a larger view.]

Anthony Mann’s film Railroaded! (1947) is an Orange Crate Art two-fer, as it features both a pocket notebook and a telephone exchange name. The notebook belongs to police sergeant Mickey Ferguson (Hugh Beaumont). Dig the perforations! A pocket looseleaf-notebook plays an important role in Mann’s T-Men (1947).

If it’s difficult to make out: the word stamped into the leather of this high-class item, far left, is CARDS.

June 27: In the comments, Adair has identified this notebook as a Robinson Reminder. Here’s a picture of one that sold at Etsy.

More notebook sightings
Angels with Dirty Faces : Cat People : Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne : Extras : Journal d’un curé de campagne : The House on 92nd Street : The Lodger : Murder, Inc. : The Mystery of the Wax Museum : The Palm Beach Story : Pickpocket : Pickup on South Street : Quai des Orfèvres : Red-Headed Woman : Rififi : The Sopranos : Spellbound : T-Men : Union Station

[Yes, there are all kinds of ways to watch movies.]

Telephone exchange names
on screen: GLadstone



Railroaded! (dir. Anthony Mann, 1947) is a perfect B-movie: nasty, brutish, and short. The cast includes Hugh Beaumont (later of Leave It to Beaver), John Ireland (Red River), and Jane Randolph (Cat People). GLadstone was indeed a Los Angeles telephone exchange. And Anthony Mann made some modestly terrific thrillers.


[Click for a larger view.]

More exchange names on screen
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse : Baby Face : Blast of Silence : Born Yesterday : The Dark Corner : Deception : Dream House : The Little Giant : The Man Who Cheated Himself : Modern Marvels : Murder, My Sweet : My Week with Marilyn : Naked City (1) : Naked City (2) : Naked City 3 : Naked City (4) : Nightmare Alley : The Public Enemy : Side Street : Sweet Smell of Success : This Gun for Hire

Monday, June 25, 2012

Cities and advertising

The New York Times reports on cities raising money by selling advertising space on fire trucks, police cars, rescue helicopters, and school buses. And elsewhere:

KFC became a pioneer in this kind of unconventional ad placement earlier in the downturn, when it temporarily plastered its logo on manhole covers and fire hydrants in several cities in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee after paying to fill potholes and replace hydrants.
Life imitates David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest: in the novel’s post-millennial world of Subsidized Time, the United States government makes up for lost revenue by offering corporate bidders the naming rights for years. Most of the novel takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.

Charlotte russe


[Nancy, May 22, 1944.]

Aunt Fritzi just announced some surprise visitors: Nancy’s friends Charlotte and Ruth. Nancy’s disappointment is understandable.

Charlotte russe is a delightful food of the dowdy world, or at least the New York City version of the dowdy world. I consumed charlotte russes in my Brooklyn childhood, buying them through the window of a candy store at the northeast corner of 44th Street and 13th Avenue. The charlotte russe was a simple and satisfying food: yellow cake, whipped cream, and a maraschino cherry, held in a white cardboard cylinder. Pushing the cylinder’s cardboard bottom upward allowed easier access to the cake as the cream disappeared. I cannot recall whether a utensil came into play.

Dictionaries seem largely in the dark about the New York charlotte russe:

The American Heritage Dictionary: “a cold dessert of Bavarian cream set in a mold lined with ladyfingers.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: “a charlotte made with sponge cake or ladyfingers and a whipped-cream or custard-gelatin filling.”

The New Oxford American Dictionary: “a dessert consisting of custard enclosed in sponge cake or a casing of ladyfingers.”

The Oxford English Dictionary: “a dish composed of custard enclosed in a kind of sponge-cake.”

Er, no. But the Random House Dictionary has charlotte russes both fancy and plain: “a dessert made by lining a mold with sponge cake or ladyfingers and filling it with Bavarian cream” and “a simpler version of this, consisting of a small piece of sponge cake topped with whipped cream and a candied cherry.” I remember cake-cake, not spongecake. I’ve never been a big fan of spongecake.

The charlotte russe makes an appearance in at least two great stories of life in New York. From Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943):

There was a bakery store to one side of it [a pawnshop] which sold beautiful charlotte russes with with red candied cherries on their whipped cream tops for those who were rich enough to buy.
And from J. D. Salinger’s Seymour: An Introduction (1959), narrator Buddy Glass writing about his sister Boo Boo:
Boo Boo went through a stage — admirably short, in her case, I must say — when she “died” at least twice daily over the gaffes, the faux pas, of adults in general. At the height of this period, a favorite history teacher who came into class after lunch with a dot of charlotte russe on her cheek was quite sufficient cause for Boo Boo to wither and die at her desk.
For more on the past and present of New York’s charlotte russe, I recommend Leah Koenig’s Lost Foods of New York City: Charlotte Russe.

[The Nancy panel appears in Nancy Is Happy: Complete Dailies 1943–1945 (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012). Do you remember when candystores and newsstands did streetside business through a window?]

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The grizzly, friend to man


[Mark Trail, June 23, 2012.]

There’s probably a Mitt Romney joke in here somewhere — Sarah Palin, “mama grizzly,” all that — but I’ve chosen to post this panel for the sheer lunacy of outdoorsman Mark Trail’s thought process. Kids, don’t try this at home, or in someone else’s home.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Fred Astaire


[“Dancer Fred Astaire clad in top hat, tails & spats vaulting off his cane as he does a climatic jump in ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ number for the movie Blue Skies.” Photograph by Bob Landry. November 29, 1945. From the Life Photo Archive. Click for a larger view.]

Fred might have wished for a private image different from his public one but he couldn’t quite pull it off. The adjectives applied to him were true. He was a good fellow — never a guy. F. A. bowed out at the right time. But I shall miss him terribly. Me and the world.

Richard McKenzie, son-in-law to Astaire, quoted in Kathleen Riley, The Astaires: Fred & Adele (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).
Fred Astaire died on June 22, 1987, twenty-five years ago today.

Related posts
Fred Astaire on What’s My Line?
John Ashbery and Fred Astaire on The Mike Douglas Show

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Geoffrey Pullum on nouns

Linguist Geoffrey Pullum on the inadequacy of traditional definitions of a noun:

It is useless to look for a common ontological nature in airspeeds, apples, and absences, or organizations, orchids, and orgasms. To give a definition that permits decisions as to whether a given English word is a noun or not, you have to consider morphological and syntactic facts.
I have on several occasions taken issue with what I see as Pullum’s distortions and exaggerations regarding The Elements of Style. Here though I think that Pullum is right. He and I agree about something after all.

[This post is for my son Ben, who has grammar and its problems on his mind.]

French bookstores

The New York Times reports that bookstores in France are flourishing. Or at least French-language bookstores in France: the largest English-language bookstore in Paris is folding.

[Can you imagine the United States government subsidizing bookstores? Me neither.]

One more Automat


[“Horn & Harda[r]t’s Automat sign blacked out re New York City’s ‘browned out’ or dimmed lights, a wartime defensive measure against enemy attack.” Photograph by Andreas Feininger. New York, New York, 1943. From the Life Photo Archive.]

Other Automat posts
Automat beverage section
“Lunch Hour NYC”
New York, 1964: Automat

Automat beverage section


[“1725 Broadway — New beverage section open to public. Sept. 19, 1949.” From the New York Public Library Digital Gallery. Click for a larger view.]

“For two nickels, a cup of coffee comes spurting from the mouth of an engaging beast, the likes of which Linnaeus never saw”: Harold H. Hart’s Hart’s Guide to New York City (New York: Hart Publishing, 1964). I’m guessing that nothing had changed between 1949 and 1964. A 1914 Automat advertisement (also from the NYPL) shows the same kind of beast at work.

Related posts
“Lunch Hour NYC”
New York, 1964: Automat

[I remember eating at the Automat in childhood. But what? All I can remember is using coins.]

New York, 1964: Automat



From Harold H. Hart’s Hart’s Guide to New York City (New York: Hart Publishing, 1964). I’m following a train of thought.

Hart’s Guide is probably my favorite library-book-sale find of all time.

Also from Hart’s Guide
Chock full o’Nuts
Greenwich Village and coffee house
King Karol Records and The Record Hunter
Mayflower Coffee Shop(pe)
Minetta Tavern and Monkey Bar
Schrafft’s

“Lunch Hour NYC”

“Drawing on materials from throughout the Library, the exhibition explores the ways in which New York City — work-obsessed, time-obsessed, and in love with ingenious new ways to make money — reinvented lunch in its own image.” At the New York Public Library, opening tomorrow, “Lunch Hour NYC.” The exhibit includes a bank of Automat windows. I wish I were on vacation again.

There’s more on this exhibit at the New York Times: Revisiting the Era of Automatic Dining.

Related posts
Chock full o’Nuts
Chock full o’Nuts lunch hour
New York, 1964: Chock full o’Nuts

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

On Mitt Trail’s trail


[Mark Trail, June 20, 2012.]

Mitt Trail flees reporters asking about immigration reform, tax deductions and exemptions, and things of that nature. You know, issues. Context here.

Mitt Romney and D-list comic-strip hero Mark Trail are, it seems to me, the same (two-dimensional) person. Four previous posts offer more evidence: 1, 2, 3, 4.

Austen, art, hypochondria, summer

Hypochondriacal Henry Woodhouse has one criticism of his daughter Emma’s drawing of her friend Harriet Smith:

“It is very pretty,” said Mr. Woodhouse. “So prettily done! Just as your drawings always are, my dear. I do not know any body who draws so well as you do. The only thing I do not thoroughly like is, that she seems to be sitting out of doors, with only a little shawl over her shoulders — and it makes one think she must catch cold.”

“But, my dear papa, it is supposed to be summer; a warm day in summer. Look at the tree.”

“But it is never safe to sit out of doors, my dear.”

Jane Austen, Emma (1816).
Today is the first day of summer. Break out your shawls.

Related reading
All Jane Austen posts

VDP on Song Cycle

“It was outside of its time, and it still is”: Van Dyke Parks on Song Cycle, a short film by Richard Parks.

Related reading
All Van Dyke Parks posts

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Teacher, beware

I just had a look at the Terms and Conditions at sharemylesson.com, available via a tiny link at the bottom of the main page. The link is labeled t&cs, so that you’re sure to recognize its importance at once.¹ Here’s one passage from Terms and Conditions:

With respect to all Content you post on the Service, you grant SML a royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive and fully sub-licensable right and license to use, reproduce, modify, adapt, publish, translate, create derivative works from, distribute, perform and display such Content (in whole or part) worldwide and/or to incorporate it in other works in any form, media, or technology now known or later developed. With respect to all Content you post to the Service, you hereby waive any moral rights you have in the Content. You agree to perform all further acts necessary to perfect any of the above rights granted by you to SML, including the execution of deeds and documents, at our request. SML does not acquire any title or ownership rights in the Content that you submit and/or make available. After you submit, post, email, display, transmit or otherwise make available any such Content, you continue to retain any such rights that you may have in such Content, subject to the rights, licenses and privileges granted herein.
In other words, SML can do what it wants with your work. In copyright law, moral rights include the right to attribution. If you waive that right, I’m not sure what “any such rights that you may have in such Content” can mean. What this passage seems to mean though is that anyone who contributes material to Share My Lesson can kiss her or his work goodbye.

Another passage:
You acknowledge that other persons may have submitted Content to us, may have made public or developed, or may originate, submit, make public or develop, material similar or identical to all or a portion of your Content or concepts contained therein, and you understand and agree that you shall not be entitled to any compensation because of the use or exploitation thereof and the submission of Content, or any posting or display thereof, is not any admission of novelty, priority or originality. Even if you subsequently see or learn of a presentation, sound recording, composition, demo, idea, script, drawing, motion picture, photograph, film, video or any other content which appears to incorporate any idea or concept or include anything similar or identical to that contained in any Content you or anyone else submits, that is purely coincidental and unavoidable.
I.e., kiss your work goodbye.

And then there’s this passage:
You are prohibited from reproducing, copying, modifying, renting, leasing, loaning, selling, distributing, exploiting, extracting, providing links to, creating derivative works of or otherwise communicating or making available to third parties any part of the Content of the Service without SML’s prior written consent.

You acknowledge that, by making use of the Service, you are agreeing to comply with this prohibition and that any breach thereof is likely to result in legal proceedings being issued against you.
This passage is merely puzzling. It seems to say that teachers cannot reproduce materials from Share My Lesson for use in their classes. Yet doing so seems to be the whole point of the website.

Teacher, beware.

¹ Irony.

A related post
sharemylesson.com

sharemylesson.com

The New York Times reports that the American Federation of Teachers has created a website for teachers to share curriculum materials: sharemylesson.com. In 2009 the Times reported on teachers who buy and sell lesson plans online. It’s sad to see the AFT (my union) getting involved in this sort of effort, even if no money changes hands.

The descriptions of Share My Lesson materials are often dispiriting. Here are three, my quick choices, cut and pasted from the site:

Analyzing Atmosphere in Romeo and Juliet
Analyzing Atmosphere in Romeo and Juliet. Analyzing atmosphere in Romeo and Juliet

Fact Sheet Elegy Tichbourne
Fact Sheet Elegy Tichbourne. This is a fact sheet on the background of the poem Elegy, it can be used in conjunction with the lesson Powerpoint that i have also uploaded.

Of mice and men Unit
Of mice and men Unit. Huge set of resources tracing theme, characterization, language, etc. Almost a complete unit.
I worry about the habits of mind that would lead a teacher to repeat a description three times, to make elementary mistakes in punctuation, to type i and let it stand, to capitalize unit while lower-casing the nouns in a novella’s title, to call something both a unit and “almost a complete unit.” Can we expect these teachers to take more care with the sheets and units themselves? Can we expect the maker of “Fact Sheet Elegy Tichbourne” to take more care when he or she evaluates student writing?

A student once told me that in her high-school English classes students and teachers alike used Cliffs Notes. Everyone pretended to be reading. How long before the kids catch on and get the jump on their lesson-sharing teachers? (All one needs to join sharemylesson.com is an e-mail address.) And how long before teachers catch on and realize that this sort of endeavor does little to further their cause with the American public?

Thanks, Stefan, for pointing me to this article (and to the 2009 article).

Related posts
Reinventing the wheel
Teacher, beware (on Terms and Conditions for Share My Lesson)

Randolph Bourne on discussion

These sentences are going on my syllabi for the fall:

A good discussion increases the dimensions of every one who takes part. Being rather self-consciously a mind in a group of minds means becoming more of a person.

Randolph Bourne, “On Discussion” (1916). In History of a Literary Radical and Other Essays, ed. Van Wyck Brooks (New York: Biblio & Tannen, 1969).
The essay is online at The New Republic. I found my way to Randolph Bourne’s work by means of Christopher Lasch’s Plain Style, which presents a short essay by Bourne to exemplify good writing.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Postal abbreviations

Christopher Lasch on postal abbreviations:

Do not use the new postal abbreviations either in the running text or in footnotes. The old abbreviations — Mass., Miss. — are sanctified by custom. The new ones — MA, MI — are bureaucratic innovations designed to surround the postal service with an illusory air of efficiency. Accordingly they fall under the general prohibition of bureaucratic speech and writing, the invariable purpose of which is evasion and obfuscation, even when it appears, as here, to signal the streamlined, computerized elimination of waste motion.

Plain Style: A Guide to Written English, ed. Stewart Weaver (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).
Lasch’s mid-1980s recommendation was sound: the thirteenth edition of The Chicago Manual of Style (1982), whose recommendations Lasch adopts here and there in Plain Style, includes both sets of abbreviations, with the dowdy ones listed first as “preferred” in notes and bibliographies. That arrangement and judgement hold in the fourteenth edition (1993), which also notes that short names “like Alaska, Iowa, Maine, and Ohio” may be spelled out. Everything changes with the fifteenth edition (2003): there the two-letter abbreviations come first, though the editors note that “Many writers and editors . . . prefer the older forms.” In the sixteenth edition (2010), the editors are more direct about their preference: “Chicago prefers the two-letter postal codes to the conventional abbreviations.”

A related post
Christopher Lasch’s Plain Style

[This post is for Daughter Number Three, who hates to see postal abbreviations in writing.]

Christopher Lasch’s Plain Style

Christopher Lasch. Plain Style: A Guide to Written English. Ed. Stewart Weaver. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002. 121 pages. $18.95.

I am grading papers with the usual sense of futility. . . . Every year the illiteracy gets worse.

Christopher Lasch, in a letter to his father, May 1985
O you who teach: there is bitter consolation in knowing that you are not alone, in knowing that even, say, Christopher Lasch (professor at the University of Rochester, eminent cultural historian, author of The Culture of Narcissism) felt the futility of grading student writing. Many instructors hide from that feeling, dispensing cheery grades and wishful comments in the margins (“Take more care!”). But Lasch, in early 1983, began work on a style sheet for his students’ use. What set him to this task: the poor writing of his graduate students and their failure to improve after exposure to William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style. By October 1985 the style sheet had grown into a small guide to writing, typed and duplicated for distribution to students in Rochester’s history department.

Lasch’s final revised typescript is the source for Plain Style, which might be the most streamlined guide to writing now available: just seventy-seven printed pages, with chapters on “Elementary Principles of Literary Construction” (commentary on a short essay by Randolph Bourne), “Conventions Governing Punctuation, Capitalization, Typography, and Footnotes,” and “Characteristics of Bad Writing,” followed by lists of misused words, mispronounced names and words (“Neet′-chuh, not Neetsch or Neet-chee”), and proofreaders’ marks.

Plain Style invites comparison to The Elements of Style: both books began as in-house publications for student use; both number their principles and rules (allowing for brief marginal corrections); both issue confident, no-nonsense directives:
Strunk (revised by White) on interesting: “An unconvincing word; avoid it as a means of introduction. Instead of announcing that what you are about to tell is interesting, make it so.”

Lasch on life style: “The appeal of this tired but now ubiquitous phrase probably lies in its suggestion that life is largely a matter of style. Find something else to say about life.”
You may want to dismiss these sorts of prohibitions as the grumblings of curmudgeons, but any competent teacher would call attention to “It is interesting to note that” or “Agamemnon’s lifestyle” in student writing. There is nothing curmudgeonly about suggesting that a writer show rather than tell or that a writer avoid trite (and anachronistic) phrasing. If you labor in the realm of what Lasch calls “ill-formed, tone-deaf, ambiguous, or downright unreadable sentences,” you already understand that teaching students to become better writers is often a matter of teaching what not to do: don’t write “It is interesting to note that”; don’t use “a famous quote”; don’t begin with “In this essay I will discuss.” Or as teachers end up writing in the margin, Avoid.

Plain Style is a worthy successor to The Elements of Style (a book not nearly as bad as its detractors suggest, though in many ways dated). Lasch values strong verbs, distrusts abstractions and the passive voice, and hates blather and cant. The sentences and passages illustrating his points are wonderfully varied and assume a reader with a lively range of cultural reference: Aaron Burr, Candide, Steve and Cyndy Garvey, Antonio Gramsci, Pauline Kael, Beatrix Potter’s Mr. McGregor, George Orwell, Talcott Parsons, and William Faulkner’s Snopeses all make at least one appearance. Lasch’s guidance is hardly exhaustive: the brief paragraph on the semicolon, for instance, is not likely to cure comma splices. And complications sometimes grow beyond what’s helpful: the discussion of conventions governing quotation marks might create confusion where none existed.

Is Plain Style enough? No, but no one book is enough to solve writing problems. The Elements of Style is dated; Michael Harvey’s The Nuts and Bolts of College Writing is not especially helpful on thesis statements; Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace is at times bewildering (and, always, a typographical horror). Plain Style is beautifully designed and well written, and the soundness of its prose makes a strong case for the soundness of its advice. Lasch of course knew that one book was not enough:
We learn to write well, if we ever do, by reading good prose, paying close attention to our own words, revising relentlessly, and recalling the connections between written and spoken language.
Close attention to one’s words, a healthy (not paralyzing) self-consciousness, is what Plain Style seeks to foster in its reader.

Plain Style includes a lengthy introduction by Stewart Weaver, who places this guide to writing in the context of Lasch’s intellectual development and interest in the political implications of language. Professor Weaver tells me that Plain Style is still given free to the Rochester history department’s incoming graduate students.

xkcd: “Words for Small Sets”

Today’s xkcd:



What you get in the mouseover:

If things are too quiet, try asking a couple of friends whether “a couple” should always mean “two.” As with the question of how many spaces should go after a period, it can turn acrimonious surprisingly fast unless all three of them agree.
My son Ben and I have debated “a couple,” just once, for a few minutes. Garner’s Modern American Usage sides with Ben.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father’s Day


[Photograph by Louise Leddy, May 25, 1957. Click for a larger view.]

My dad James and me, posing for my mom, on a Saturday in Brooklyn. My dad still has that smile: he remains one handsome devil. Happy Father’s Day, Dad. And Happy Father’s Day to all.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Bloomsday 2012

From the catechetical “Ithaca” episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922):

What is home without Plumtree’s Potted Meat?

Incomplete.

With it an abode of bliss.

Manufactured by George Plumtree, 23 Merchants' quay, Dublin, put up in 4 oz pots, and inserted by Councillor Joseph P. Nannetti, M. P., Rotunda Ward, 19 Hardwicke street, under the obituary notices and anniversaries of deceases. The name on the label is Plumtree. A plumtree in a meatpot, registered trade mark. Beware of imitations. Peatmot. Trumplee. Moutpat. Plamtroo.
The present time of Ulysses: June 16, 1904. (The novel ends in the early hours of June 17.) June 16 is Bloomsday, named for the novel’s hero, Leopold Bloom. “Potted meat” is death: yes, ads for Plumtree’s appear in the newspaper under obituary notices, and Bloom’s just-buried friend Paddy Dignam is, as Bloom thinks, potted meat. Potted meat is also sexual union, something missing from Leopold and Molly Bloom’s marriage. Without: incomplete. With: yes, an abode of bliss. Yes: that’s Molly’s last word, the novel’s last word. Happy Bloomsday.

[The Strand Magazine, December 1898.]

Other Bloomsdays
2007 (The first page)
2008 (“Love’s Old Sweet Song”)
2009 (Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses)
2010 (Leopold Bloom, “water lover”)
2011 (“[T]he creature cocoa”)

Friday, June 15, 2012

SAF-T-HED Thumb Tacks

[Life, January 11, 1960.]

I found this (in reality tiny) advertisement while looking, as usual, for something else. Before seeing this ad, I never thought about the danger of pin passing “thru head.” Now I’ll be unable to press on a thumbtack without thinking about that danger. Ouch. I like though the idea that our nation once had a favorite thumbtack. Imagine the conversations.

The American Tack Company, founded in 1937, lives on as AmerTac, “a decorative home accent company,” making everything but thumbtacks.

Related posts
Antique Packaging
Moore Metalhed Maptacks

[This post is for Gunther, who appreciates thumbtacks.]

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Words I can live without

A spontaneous list: delve, -flecked, get (as in “So-and-so gets it,” meaning that So-and-so sees things as you do), helm (as a noun or verb, unless you’re at sea, literally), limn, the planet (as in “on the planet”), tome. These words are tired. Let us allow them a rest.

Delve often becomes a slightly pompous substitute for examine, go into, or look at. But the primary meaning of delve (“reach inside a receptacle and search for something”) makes the word best reserved for figurative use that suggests a genuine search. It makes no sense to describe, for instance, a letter-writer as refusing to “delve into specifics”: if those specifics are available to the writer, no search is involved. Better to say that the letter-writer is refusing to go into specifics, and give delve a rest. The use of -flecked to form phrasal adjectives also needs a rest: I cringe when I read that a new film is “laugh-flecked.” And when told that someone is at the helm of a committee, I want to abandon ship, even if the person helming gets it.

Michiko Kakutani’s overuse of limn has created problems for the word, which seems to lend itself to misuse anyway, as when an art critic writes that lines on graph paper limn a portrait. No, they form one. Here is the portrait in question. See?

Referring to the planet is silly. The greatest tenor saxophonist on the planet is the greatest tenor saxophonist, period. (That would be Sonny Rollins, I’d say, or David Murray.) One might say greatest living. But “on the planet” will make sense only when there are saxophonists on the moon. For now, “on the planet,” like “of all time,” suggests the American penchant for grandiose statement.

As for tome, the New Oxford American Dictionary notes that use of the word is “chiefly humorous”: tome as a substitute for book sounds a bit absurd. If the novel you’re reading is “an interesting tome,” you’d better be speaking archly. My friend Aldo Carrasco and I used tome as a joke with reference to letters, some of which ran for — think of it — several pages.

Related posts
More words I can live without
That said,

[All examples are drawn from journalism or life. The definition of delve is from the New Oxford American Dictionary. Michiko Kakutani’s overuse of limn got me noticing her overuse of mess and messy, which I wrote about here, here, and here. I like extra details in brackets and hope that you do too.]

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Telephone exchange names
on screen: SLOane


[Click for a larger view.]

SLOane (for Sloane Square) was indeed a London exchange name, and SLOane-2965 was indeed Noël Coward’s number. The SLOane exchange makes a cameo appearance in My Week with Marilyn (dir. Simon Curtis, 2011), a terrific film that mixes comedy, desire, and sorrow in perfect proportions.

What — do you think that just because this exchange name appears in a film about Marilyn Monroe that I’m going to post a screenshot of Michelle Williams as Monroe? You do? Oh, okay. Monroe prefaces this pose (for a small crowd outside Windsor Castle) by asking Colin Clark (Eddie Redmayne), “Shall I be ‘her’?”


[Click for a larger view.]

More exchange names on screen
The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse : Baby Face : Blast of Silence : Born Yesterday : The Dark Corner : Deception : Dream House : The Little Giant : The Man Who Cheated Himself : Modern Marvels : Murder, My Sweet : Naked City (1) : Naked City (2) : Naked City 3 : Naked City (4) : Nightmare Alley : The Public Enemy : Side Street : Sweet Smell of Success : This Gun for Hire

This Is Coffee!

From 1961, the Coffee Brewing Institute presents This Is Coffee! (Open Culture).

My favorite line: “Perfect coffee, sending its glow into our lives around the clock.” Never no sleeping!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Recently updated

Adventures in education A scheme to measure student engagement with “galvanic skin response” bracelets recalls an earlier Microsoft scheme to monitor employee metabolism.

Adventures in education

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is funding research into the use of “galvanic skin response” bracelets to measure student engagement in classrooms. Diane Ravitch explains why we should care — and worry.

2:19 p.m.: I just remembered a precedent for this scheme. In 2008 Microsoft filed a patent application for a system to monitor employee metabolism: “at least one of heart rate, galvanic skin response, EMG, brain signals, respiration rate, body temperature, movement, facial movements, facial expressions, and blood pressure.” Here is the application. A January 2008 OCA post preserves parts of a now-gone Times of London article about this venture: Microsoft, innovating.

8:55 p.m.: The Washington Post reports that the Gates Foundation has changed the online description of the bracelet project by removing a reference to the use of bracelets in evaluating teachers.

[I found the patent via this January 2008 post from Microsoft Watch.]

Hi and Lois watch


[Hi and Lois, June 12, 2012.]

The joke in today’s strip would seem to be that the Flagstons have a fax machine. And they’re not ashamed to use it.

Related reading
All Hi and Lois posts (via Pinboard)

[Perhaps salaryman Flagston and his family are making a play for Japanese readers? Fifty-nine percent of Japanese households have a fax machine.]

Neologism finale

The neologism contest that began last Monday has ended. The challenge, issued by my friend Stefan Hagemann, was to invent “a word that describes a particular kind of foolish shortcut, the kind that, often in a foreseeable way, fails to save time and may result in irritation or the feeling that one is absurd and a dimwit.” Stefan judged the seventeen entries. He writes:

I’m thrilled to announce a winner for the grand (epic, really), non-annual, neologism contest, but let me first thank Michael for generously providing a venue and for his encouraging words, without which the contest could not exist. You have a wonderful way, Michael, of helping me distinguish between that which is appropriately silly and that which is merely silly. I would of course like also to thank everyone who entered a word. Forgive the contest cliché, but I had a really tough time picking a winner, so smart and clever and laugh-out-loud funny were all of the entries. Few blogs, I suspect, have such a capable, playful, and witty audience, so to borrow a line from Tom Waits, “everyone’s a winner.”

Now on to the fun stuff: I’d like to honorably mention Geo-B’s “thwartstep.” “Shitcut,” submitted by Anonymous and Sabrebutt, also deserves honorable mention (not only because the word made me laugh the hardest but mainly for that reason). And the winning entry, which blends pun with precision and so best captures the essence of a time saving effort gone horribly wrong is, envelope please, . . . Sean’s “bypasstrophe.” Sean, I found a copy of Leonard Louis Levinson’s Webster’s Unafraid Dictionary: 5000 Gag Definitions in my town’s best used-book store, and I’d like to send it to you. If you would like to e-mail me at first initial followed by last name [at] edgewood [dot] edu with a mailing address, I’d be glad to do so. Anonymous, Saberbutt, and Geo-B, I’d like to send you each something too, so please let me know where I can send it. Thanks once more to everyone who participated and to those like me who read along and marveled at so much imagination.
I’ll echo Stefan by saying thanks to everyone who took part in this endeavor. And congratulations to the winners. I look forward to seeing these neologisms make their way in the world, slowly, with hard work — no bypasstrophes, no shitcuts, no thwartsteps.

[Winners, please note that the first initial and last name in the disguised address belong to Stefan, not to me.]

Monday, June 11, 2012

Poets’ press conference

“Citing both the ageless gloom of morning and a weary sun, its astral luminescence wrapped in arid gauze, the nation’s poets told reporters this week that doubt lingers in the frail minutes of a young dawn, adding that said doubt was a heathen doubt — a father’s doubt — untouched by faith”: from a poets’ press conference.

[It’s sad that this sort of stuff is, for many, synonymous with the words “contemporary poetry.” Here’s a nice gateway to alternatives.]

Nancy meets Stanley Kubrick


[Nancy, January 5, 1944. From Ernie Bushmiller, Nancy Is Happy: Complete Dailies 1943–1945 (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2012).]

I didn’t know that Nancy Ritz did a screen test for The Shining.

Related posts
Nancy is here
No (“the greatest Nancy panel ever drawn”)

Neologism contest ends today

Word wanted. Apply within.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Recently updated

David Foster Wallace, nonplussed My friend Sara McWhorter found nonplussed, correctly used, in Infinite Jest. Thanks, Sara.

Tiny Furniture

Tiny Furniture (dir. Lena Dunham, 2010) might be the only Criterion Collection film I’ve seen that was an utter disappointment. The film’s characters are blanker than blank: alienated, inarticulate, self-obsessed, devoid of such human resources as empathy, self-awareness, and skepticism. The protagonist Aura (played by Dunham) is a new college-grad with nothing to show for her education. She makes choices that are beyond bewildering, and her mother Siri (played by Dunham’s mother Laurie Simmons) seems beyond caring. There’s very little that’s engaging here: the film’s ninety-nine minutes pass at a very slow speed. When I imagine how my college-grad children and their peers might respond to Tiny Furniture, I suspect that they too would be unimpressed and exasperated. Dunham’s work does not look to my eyes like a portrait of a generation.

I found Tiny Furniture via the New Titles list at my university library and did not know until last night that Lena Dunham is now Big, the creator of the HBO series Girls. This week’s New York Times Magazine has a short interview with Dunham, just one of many Times appearances in the last few months.

[Roger Ebert is a national treasure, but his taste in movies often baffles me. He likes Tiny Furniture, calling it “well-crafted.” Well-crafted: yipes.]

Neologism contest continues unabated, expected to last several more days, but experts predict an end “soon”

The challenge: to devise a word that means a “foolish shortcut, the kind that, often in a foreseeable way, fails to save time and may result in irritation or the feeling that one is absurd and a dimwit.”

The neologism contest that began on Monday continues to continue. There are now seventeen entries. The contest ends on Monday, June 11, at 11:59 p.m. Central.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Ralph Nader turns into Andy Rooney

From an interview with Ralph Nader:

Do you have a computer?

No. No computer. No iPhone. I do admit to an Underwood typewriter. When the lights go off and the electricity is ruptured, I am still working. My colleagues are not.
Enjoy yourself figuring up the mistaken assumptions and faulty bits of reasoning in the above response.

[How did I ever vote for this guy?]

Separated at birth?



Former United States Senator Blanche Lincoln and television star Elaine Hansen.

Related posts
Ted Berrigan and C. Everett Koop
Ton Koopman and Oliver Sacks

Beans Spasms returns

Bean Spasms has returned, still crazy after all these years. From the Granary Books website:

Originally published in 1967 by Kulchur Press in an edition of 1,000, and out-of-print for more than 40 years, Bean Spasms is a book many have heard about but relatively few have seen, and which — until now — has been shrouded in legend. The text is comprised of collaborations between poets Ted Berrigan and Ron Padgett, with further writings, illustrations and cover by artist and writer Joe Brainard. The three began collaborating in 1960, and kept a folder of their works titled “Lyrical Bullets” (a humorous homage to the well-known collaboration between Coleridge and Wordsworth, “Lyrical Ballads”). As Ron Padgett describes, in his introduction to this new facsimile edition, their collaborations included “plays, a fictitious correspondence, a picaresque novel, goofy interviews and poems of various types and lengths, as well as mistranslations and parodies of each other’s work and the work of others.” Poet friends dropping by during writing sessions would also add lines, and although Berrigan and Padgett also contributed visuals, and Brainard contributed texts, all works in the book were intentionally left unattributed. Full of wild wit and joy in experimentation, competition and collaboration, Bean Spasms is a classic document of the New York School.
I have large portions of Bean Spasms on xerox: for me, the cost of a used copy has always been prohibitive. There are four originals now at AbeBooks, starting at $500. The Granary Books paperback reprint: $39.95.

[Cover art by Joe Brainard.]

A few related posts
Canon-formation
“A FINAL SONNET”
Good advice on looking at art
“Pikakirjoitusvihko”
A poem for New Year’s Eve
Separated at birth?

Neologism contest continues to keep going, expected to continue “for days”

Needed: a word that means a “foolish shortcut, the kind that, often in a foreseeable way, fails to save time and may result in irritation or the feeling that one is absurd and a dimwit.” The neologism contest that began on Monday continues to keep going. There are now sixteen entries. What’s missing: maybe yours?

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Natasha Trethewey, poet laureate

The New York Times reports on Natasha Trethewey, the new poet laureate, with a sampling of her poems. The four samples become more interesting when one looks at them in light of Marjorie Perloff’s recent commentary on the “well-crafted” poem (also known as the “workshop poem”). For clarity: “well-crafted” is not a term of praise. It’s meant rather to suggest a formulaic and deeply restricted sense of what poetry might be. Perloff describes three main features of the “well-crafted” poem:

1) irregular lines of free verse, with little or no emphasis on the construction of the line itself or on what the Russian Formalists called “the word as such”; 2) prose syntax with lots of prepositional and parenthetical phrases, laced with graphic imagery or even extravagant metaphor (the sign of “poeticity”); 3) the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany, usually based on a particular memory, designating the lyric speaker as a particularly sensitive person who really feels the pain, whether of our imperialist wars in the Middle East or of late capitalism or of some personal tragedy such as the death of a loved one.
The one “well-crafted” poem Perloff quotes in full in making her case: “Hot Combs,” by Natasha Trethewey.

I’ll consider the first six lines of one of the Times’s sample poems, “Limen”:
All day I’ve listened to the industry
of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree
just outside my window. Hard at his task,

his body is a hinge, a door knocker
to the cluttered house of memory in which
I can almost see my mother’s face.
“Irregular lines of free verse”: yes, though there is a ghost of iambic pentameter in several of the poem’s lines, and three instances of rhyme or off-rhyme. But the lines do appear to be what I call chopped prose. Notice too the many prepositional phrases, beginning to, of, outside, at, to, of, and in.

If these lines suffer when turned into prose, it is because their false insistence and strained metaphor become more evident when the line breaks disappear:
All day I’ve listened to the industry of a single woodpecker, worrying the catalpa tree just outside my window. Hard at his task, his body is a hinge, a door knocker to the cluttered house of memory in which I can almost see my mother’s face.
False insistence: would you, reader, really listen to a woodpecker peck all day? When it’s just outside your window? Wouldn’t you go the library or a coffeeshop or something? Strained metaphor: the bird’s body is a hinge but also a door knocker? And that makes the tree a house of memory that the bird is trying to enter? A treehouse in which the poet can almost see her mother’s face?

As the poem continues, the mother turns out to be elsewhere, “beyond the tree,” hanging sheets on a clothesline, “each one // a thin white screen between us”: another strained metaphor. And then “the expression of a profound thought or small epiphany”: the woodpecker is looking “not simply” for “beetles and grubs,” “but for some other gift / the tree might hold.” The poet is “sure” about it.

There’s nothing wrong with making something of a bird: John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Wallace Stevens, Marianne Moore, and Elizabeth Bishop (to name a few poets) do so in poems that enact imaginative discovery and invite the reader’s participation in that discovery. What I see in Trethewey’s poem is a too-facile application of “poeticity” to a scene, an application that invites the reader to nod, Yes, it’s poetry. When it comes to poetry and woodpeckers, I’ll stick with Ron Padgett.

[That title — “Limen”? A word to look up. And yes, I’m aware that the presence of the poet’s mother in the poem involves a family tragedy.]

Neologism contest keeps on going, shows no sign of stopping

Needed: a word that means a “foolish shortcut, the kind that, often in a foreseeable way, fails to save time and may result in irritation or the feeling that one is absurd and a dimwit.” The neologism contest that began on Monday runs through Monday. There are now fifteen entries.

The toast sandwich

I just learned about a bit of cookery that sounds like something from a Bob and Ray sketch: the toast sandwich. The ingredients: bread, butter, toast, salt, pepper. In November 2011 the BBC reported on this sandwich, billed as the United Kingdom’s cheapest meal. As the BBC notes, the recipe may be found in Isabella Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), which happens to be at Google Books:


[From The Book of Household Management; Comprising Information for The Mistress, Housekeeper, Cook, Kitchen-Maid, Butler, Footman, Coachman, Valet, Upper And Under House-Maids, Lady's-Maid, Maid-of-All-Work, Laundry-Maid, Nurse and Nursemaid, Monthly, Wet And Sick Nurses, Etc. Etc. Also, Sanitary, Medical, & Legal Memoranda; with a History of the Origin, Properties, and Uses of All Things Connected with Home Life and Comfort. (London: S.O. Beeton, 1861).]

Here’s a review, from a writer who dubs the sandwich the BBC Austerity George Osborne Toast Sandwich.

A related post
Beeton on French coffee

[The BBC does not mention that the recipe comes from the chapter “Invalid Cookery.” Bob and Ray’s Harry and Mary Backstayge ran for a time a House of Toast, which offered toast, buttered on the far side or the near side, and prune shakes. The toast sandwich would have been a fine addition to the menu.]

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Neologism contest keeps continuing

Can you think of a good word for a “foolish shortcut, the kind that, often in a foreseeable way, fails to save time and may result in irritation or the feeling that one is absurd and a dimwit”? The neologism contest that began on Monday keeps continuing, with thirteen entries so far.

Rooms, radios, hurdles

On reading and attention:

Too few boys and girls seem to know the simplest facts about reading. When a student comes around with a baffled look, saying that he has spent several hours each evening doing the assigned work but “don’t seem to get anything out of it,” the case is usually easy to diagnose: “Do you study in a room by yourself?” “No.” “Then, do.” Sometimes the answer is “Yes, I have a room of my own,” in which case the next question is, “Do you keep the radio on?” “Yes.” “Then, don’t.” Jane Austen could write novels in the family parlor and some people can think in a boiler factory, but it is foolish to take the hardest hurdles first when the power of attention is so rare.

Jacques Barzun, Teacher in America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1945).
Barzun’s observations remind me of a 2006 post I wrote about finding a good place to study. That post is also (still) available in Renzai’s Japanese translation: 勉強しやすい場所. Google Translate makes a sometimes lovely mess turning it back into English: “It is easy to do and study anywhere, it’s various colors.”

Related reading
All Jacques Barzun posts (via Pinboard)

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Not from Lincoln

There’s a passage attributed to Abraham Lincoln, widely distributed, which goes as follows:

I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. As a result of the war, corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before, even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.
I encountered this passage for the first time in a television commercial paid for by a union local. As you might guess, I am sympathetic to what this passage says. But I know that apocryphal quotations are, as Thomas Jefferson said, “a dime a dozen,” so I wanted to check on the source, which the commercial identified as a November 21, 1864 letter from Lincoln to Colonel William F. Elkins.

A quick search for lincoln elkins corporations brought up a page at snopes.com. Uh-oh. If Snopes was correct, this passage could not be attributed to Lincoln. I e-mailed the union local and was told that the local consulted Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer before running the commercial and that Mr. Holzer confirmed that the passage comes from Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1861. And I felt like an idiot.

But then I noticed that the source being cited was not the source cited in the commercial. And when I looked up the December 3, 1861 Message to Congress, I found that it doesn’t contain the passage in question. I then e-mailed Mr. Holzer, who replied that this passage is not Lincoln’s. I am grateful for Mr. Holzer for his reply: he has better things to do than answer questions about apocryphal quotations.

I don’t know how to explain the union local’s response to my query. It would be simple enough to say “We goofed”: plenty of people have taken these words to be Lincoln’s. But the words aren’t Lincoln’s. Here though are words from another president, John Adams, as quoted in David McCullough’s 2001 biography: “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictums of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Related posts (on another apocryphal quotation)
From Eliot to Woolf to Montaigne
It is the correction that matters

[I don’t like explaining a joke, but in case there is any doubt: Thomas Jefferson didn’t say that apocryphal quotations are a dime a dozen. He did though, with Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and David Rittenhouse, propose a decimal-based coinage system.]

Neologism contest continues

What’s a good word for a “foolish shortcut, the kind that, often in a foreseeable way, fails to save time and may result in irritation or the feeling that one is absurd and a dimwit”? The neologism contest that began yesterday continues through next Monday.

David Foster Wallace, nonplussed

Several years ago I came to realize that I misunderstood the meaning of the word nonplussed. So I am amused to see David Foster Wallace using the word correctly in his first novel, The Broom of the System (New York: Viking Penguin, 1987). Rick Vigorous (of the publishing firm Frequent and Vigorous) approaches switchboard operator Lenore Stonecipher Beadsman:

I see Lenore looking up to smile at my approach. I see me exhausting the subject of the weather, then asking Lenore if she might perhaps care to have a drink, with me, after work. I see one of the rare occasions I’ve encountered in which the word “nonplussed” might profitably be used in description. I see Lenore momentarily nonplussed.

“I don’t really drink,” she said, after a moment, looking back down at her book.

I felt a sinking. “You don’t drink liquid of any sort?” I asked her.

Lenore looked up softly at me and gave a slow smile. Her moist lips curved up softly. They really did. I resisted the urge to lunge into disaster right there in the lobby. “I drink liquid,” she admitted, after a moment.

“Splendid. What sort of liquid do you prefer to drink?”

“Ginger ale’s an especially good liquid, I’ve always thought,” she said, laughing.
I’m almost a third of the way through the novel and am surprised to see so many elements of Infinite Jest already in place (in a novel written as an undergraduate thesis): non-chronological narrative, sections and subsections identified by year, multiple narrators, exhaustive catalogues, excerpts from other texts, awkward dialogue, long stretches of dialogue without attribution, the use of “‘. . .’” to mark baffled silence, even a reconfigured American landscape (the Great Ohio Desert). I see me finishing this novel in the near future.

June 9: My friend Sara McWhorter reports that nonplussed also appears, correctly used, in Infinite Jest (Boston: Little, Brown, 1996). The word comes up on pages 57 and 692: “the guy was to say the least nonplussed”; “Day was nonplussed when he found himself, after a couple long nights, almost missing Lenz.” Thanks, Sara.

Related reading
All David Foster Wallace posts (via Pinboard)

[Lenore’s fellow switchboard operator is named Judith Prietht.]

Monday, June 4, 2012

"The Education of Dasmine Cathey"

At the University of Memphis, Dasmine Cathey is working on his résumé with “life-skills coordinator” Kristin Rusboldt:

“What's your major?” she asks.

“Sports management.”

“Is that a bachelor of science or arts?” she says.

He doesn’t know, so he walks a few steps away to ask [football counselor] Ms. [Sharyne] Connell.

“Do I have a bachelor of science or arts?” he says.

Ms. Connell comes out of her office and heads toward Ms. Rusboldt. “He has a bachelor of liberal studies in interdisciplinary studies,” she says.

Mr. Cathey sits back down, a staff member by each side. He taps out, “Bachelor of Liberal Studies.”

“Type ‘in Interdisciplinary Studies,’” Ms. Rusboldt says.

“How do you spell that?”
Read it all, including the samples of academic work, and weep:

The Education of Dasmine Cathey (Chronicle of Higher Education)

[I think though that medical not academic issues will doom college football.]

“It’s ordered special for you!”


[Mark Trail, June 4, 2012.]

Mitt Romney and D-list cartoon hero Mark Trail are, it seems, the same person (or character). Here he takes the fight to President Obama in the White House itself. Enough of these special privileges, says Mitt/Mark.

Related posts
Mitt/Mark Romney/Trail
Mitt/Mark and the big trees
Mitt/Mark Romney/Trail, learning from experience

Neologism contest

My friend Stefan Hagemann is seeking a word and is willing to sponsor a contest to find it. I think that’s a great idea. Here is what Stefan is seeking:

I’d like us to invent a word that describes a particular kind of foolish shortcut, the kind that, often in a foreseeable way, fails to save time and may result in irritation or the feeling that one is absurd and a dimwit. The best example might be that of trying to put on or take off pants without removing one’s shoes, but I seem to need this (nonexistent) word almost every day. When I try to add cream to a container of iced coffee by pouring it through the small opening (rather than removing the larger lid), only to spill cream everywhere, I could use that word. When I haul a Shop-Vac up a ladder because I think it will be faster to vacuum the maple seeds out of my gutters, only to clog the vacuum repeatedly so that I finally give up, I could use that word. What should that word be?
The rules for this contest are simple:

1. You must leave your word in a comment on this post. Use your name or a pseudonym (but not an e-mail address).
2. You may enter more than once.
3. Void where prohibited.

Very important: you must have read this post to be eligible to play. You have now read this post. So play!

Stefan will choose the winning word and award a suitable prize. The deadline for all entries: Monday, June 11, 11:59 p.m. Central.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Carbon Paper Exam

Margalit Fox in the New York Times:

The passing of carbon paper (and, more worrisome, the passing of people to whom the words “carbon paper” are as familiar as air) captures in miniature the sea change sweeping today’s work force. With the retirement of each member of the carbon-paper cohort — my cohort — a certain body of collective knowledge, which for decades has lent the American work product an essential, indefinable, generational something, is eroded a little more.
Thus a test for the use of employers who wish to perpetuate knowledge of such matters: The Carbon Paper Exam. Answers here.

Related reading
All “dowdy world” posts

[I missed only the Hotel Carlton question. How about you?]