Friday, October 31, 2014

“Not yet, son of Poeas!”

[“Trick or Treat?” Illustration by Hannah Isabel Gay. October 31, 2014. Used with permission. Click for a larger view.]

What a wonderful thing to step into a classroom and find this illustration on the blackboard. It’s the work of my student Hannah Isabel Gay. Major props, Hannah.

The scene is from the final moments of Sophocles’s Philoctetes. The Greek warrior Philoctetes, son of Poeas, suffers from a foul-smelling, never-healing wound. His fellow Greeks abandoned him on the island of Lemnos as they sailed to Troy. But now, nine years later, the Greeks need Philoctetes and his magic bow (a gift from Heracles) if they are to take Troy. Odysseus and Neoptolemus (Achilles’s son) travel to Lemnos to bring Philoctetes back. But how? By force? persuasion? deceit? And will Neoptolemus go along with Odysseus’s plans? At the play’s end, as Neoptolemus prepares to take Philoctetes home, Heracles appears above the entrance to Philoctetes’s cave and declares that Philoctetes must go to Troy, where his wound will be healed and he will win great honor in battle.

The classicist and director Peter Meineck offers an inspired suggestion: because the actor who played Odysseus would now be playing Heracles, perhaps “Heracles” is Odysseus in disguise, and the divine command just one more Odyssean deception. Treat? Or trick?

And thus this picture.

A related post
Chicago possessives

A WPA Halloween poster

[“Halloween Roller Skating Carnival.” Federal Art Project, New York, 1936. From the Work Projects Administration Poster Collection, Library of Congress. Click for a larger view.]

That’s the friendliest pumpkin-headed roller-skater I’ve ever seen. Happy Halloween.

[The WPA Poster Collection resides here.]

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Recently updated

Poor flowers Allen Ginsberg, not stealing, not ripping off.

Know Your Library of Congress Classification Title

It’s the exciting new party-game sensation that’s sweeping my mind: Know Your Library of Congress Classification Title. How to play:

1. Go to the Library of Congress Classification Outline.

2. Find your first initial. Click.

3. Look for your last initial to determine whether you have a one- or two- letter code.

My wife Elaine has a one-letter code: E. There is no EF. Elaine’s LCC title is History of the Americas (America, United States). I have a two-letter code: ML, Literature on music. I remember noticing that code when I was an undergrad borrowing Bill Cole’s biography of Miles Davis from my college’s library. ML, huh.

What’s your LCC title?

[My usual library haunts: P, PA, PE, PR, PS.]

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Poor flowers

Poore floure (quoth she) this was thy fathers guise,
Sweet issue of a more sweet smelling sire,
For euerie little griefe to wet his eies,
To grow vnto himselfe was his desire;
    And so tis thine, but know it is as good,
    To wither in my brest, as in his blood.

William Shakepeare, Venus and Adonis, 1593
Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a
    flower? when did you look at your skin and decide
    you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the
    ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a
    once powerful mad American locomotive?

Allen Ginsberg, “Sunflower Sutra,” 1955
Difficult (at least for me) to think that the phrasing is just coincidence.

Both poems may be found online.


October 30: I’m surprised that some readers (elsewhere) have taken the echo to be a question of whether one poet is “ripping off” or ”stealing” from another. Good grief. It’s an echo, a small element in a poem whose precursor is another poem about a flower, William Blake’s “Ah! Sun-flower.”

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Here’s Hi, and Lois

[Hi and Lois, October 28, 2014.]

Things are back to normal on the Hi and Lois production line. Follow that painting: if today’s strip is to be believed, the Flagstons’ facade includes a door to an interior room. Shades of the Overlook Hotel.

Related reading
All OCA Hi and Lois posts (Pinboard)


A professor at the University of Warwick was banned from campus “following accusations he ‘sighed’ and was sarcastic during job interviews.”

[Rolls eyes.]

Monday, October 27, 2014

Paper, +1

“To prefer something that is better-looking, faster, more reliable, and which puts you firmly in control: where’s the shame in that?” Lucy Kellaway prefers paper calendars to digital ones. Her favorite: a Moleskine datebook. Her commentary begins at 13:13 (from the BBC broadcast Business Daily).

Related reading
All OCA Moleskine posts (Pinboard)
All OCA paper posts (Pinboard)

On “the true nature of the University”

Beaver Cleaver speaking:

“Wouldn’t it be nice if a guy could stay in school and hide from the world, like teachers do?”
Beaver asks that question in the Leave It to Beaver episode “The All-Night Party” (May 30, 1963). Wally tells his brother that he is “way off-base.” But then there’s a scene in John Williams’s novel Stoner (1965) in which graduate student and instructor David Masters describes what he calls “the true nature of the University”:
“It is an asylum or — what do they call them now? — a rest home, for the infirm, the aged, the discontent, and the otherwise incompetent. Look at the three of us — we are the University. The stranger would not know that we have so much in common, but we know, don’t we? We know well. . . .

“It’s for us that the University exists, for the dispossessed of the world; not for the students, not for the selfless pursuit of knowledge, not for any of the reasons that you hear.”
I think that the sense of academic life as a refuge, a monastery of sorts, was once real, though it may not have been voiced with David Masters’s frankness. I can think of several professors from my undergraduate experience who would have been lost in the so-called real world. But the sense of refuge, if ever it was real, is long gone. Careerism rules.

Stoner is available as a New York Review Books reprint (2003). It’s an extraordinary novel.

A related post
A teaching thought (From a Williams interview)

Sunday, October 26, 2014

McGrath on Pinker on Strunk and White

Charles McGrath recently reviewed Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Early on, McGrath writes about the book that Pinker’s book means to replace:

Though still revered, The Elements of Style, to be honest, is a little dated now, and just plain wrong about some things. Strunk and White are famously clueless, for example, about what constitutes the passive voice.
Dated? Yes. “Temporally incorrect” is how I like to put it. And some of Strunk and White’s cautions and preferred usages baffle. But this business about “famously clueless”: like Pinker, McGrath repeats Geoffrey Pullum’s claim that Strunk and White do not understand the passive voice. As I’ve argued in a response to Pullum’s take on The Elements of Style, that claim is a misreading of the plain sense of Strunk and White’s text. Follow the link and see if you agree.

For a more thoughtful (and critical) appraisal of The Sense of Style, I’d recommend this review. Alex Sheremet patiently takes apart passages that Pinker presents as showpieces of good prose. In so doing, Sheremet makes me suspect that The Sense of Style ’s sense of style will make me slightly crazy. I am waiting for the library to make it happen.

An interested reader can find my pre-Sense of Style take on Pinker and Strunk and White in a post about a 2012 Pinker lecture. That post has had a number of visits from Harvard and environs, and I’ve wondered, of course, if one (or more) of the visitors might have been Steven Pinker. But I doubt it. Like the 2012 lecture, The Sense of Style gets the story of The Elements wrong, stating that E. B. White turned William Strunk’s “course notes“ into a book.

In 2013, this tweet made me happy. And it still does:


December 20, 2014: I’ve written a review of The Sense of Style.

Related reading
All Elements of Style posts (Pinboard)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

David Foster Wallace’s backhand

Did David Foster Wallace hit a backhand with one hand, or two? One.

Related reading
All OCA David Foster Wallace posts (Pinboard)

Friday, October 24, 2014

Pocket notebook sightings: Dragnet

[“You have the right to remain silent”: Anthony Eisely as bad cop Chris Drucker, reading himself his rights. From the Dragnet episode “Administrative Vice: DR 29” (February 6, 1969).]

The Los Angeles Police Department notebook, as seen in the television series Dragnet, is a thing of beauty. Miranda rights are printed on the cover. I wish I could find a photograph online.

A missing notebook is the crucial element in a Dragnet episode devoted to an internal investigation. A dead man’s landlord claims to have turned over the man’s few valuables, including $1000. The cops, who wrote two receipts, say it was $200. The landlord says she threw her receipt away. The notebook with the cops’ copy is missing. The notebook slid under a car dashboard, where Joe Friday finds it and saves the day.

[Sgt. Friday finds a missing notebook. From the Dragnet episode “I.A.D.: The Receipt” (March 26, 1970).]

[Yep, $200. Such strange printing. But that is indeed Agnes Emerson’s signature. Click any image for a larger view.]

Given Jack Webb’s close connection to the LAPD, I wanted to assume that these notebooks are — or were — the real thing. The answer is were . I called the Los Angeles Police Revolver & Athletic Club’s store this morning. The two men I spoke with knew exactly what I was asking about and said that these notebooks are no longer used.

You can find these notebooks and their episodes — one, then the other — at Hulu.

More notebook sightings
Angels with Dirty Faces : Cat People : Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne : Extras : Foreign Correspondent : Journal d’un curé de campagne : The House on 92nd Street : The Lodger : Murder, Inc. : The Mystery of the Wax Museum : Naked City : The Palm Beach Story : Pickpocket : Pickup on South Street : Quai des Orfèvres : Railroaded! : Red-Headed Woman : Rififi : Route 66 : The Sopranos : Spellbound : State Fair : T-Men : Union Station : The Woman in the Window

Thursday, October 23, 2014

“Think middle school report”

A choice excerpt from the document titled Investigation of Irregular Classes in the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill :

It was also well known that quality played little to no part in the paper class grading process. In fact, it was even the subject of jokes among the ASPSA football counselors and tutors. In one email chain, for example, Learning Specialist Amy Kleissler (“Kleissler”) and [Academic Support Program for Student-Athletes staff-member Jaimie] Lee joke about how tutor Whitney Read (“Read”) is worried that a particular football player may not have enough time to get his paper done for his paper class. Kleissler comments that “I still don’t think [Read] is absorbing what I am saying about the paper. I finally just said ‘think middle school report, not college seminar paper.’”
The report in full is available as a PDF. The Chronicle of Higher Education has extensive coverage of the report’s findings: Key Players in Academic Fraud at UNC, Three Key Findings in Chapel Hill’s Academic-Fraud Investigation, Widespread Nature of Chapel Hill’s Academic Fraud Is Laid Bare.


January 1, 2015: heads are rolling: Professor Among 4 Fired in UNC Academic Fraud (The New York Times). Jaimie Lee is among those gone.

[The first brackets are mine.]

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

For Canada

Life in North America feels more dangerous today. Stay safe, Canada.

A postcard from my future self

Something interesting on my front step this morning — a postcard from my future self.

Oct. 24

Hello Michael,

Thanks for putting in the time grading all those essays last Thursday and Friday. You could have spaced them out over many more days, but you didn’t. And thanks to you, the past six days have been grading-free. Way to go.

See you soon,

Writing to one’s future self may seem to you (as it does to me) awfully corny. Getting a note from one’s future self is another story. I find that thinking about my future self can be helpful in getting work done, again and again. FS FTW.

A related post

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Helvetica, eww

I updated my Mac to Yosemite today and found myself disappointed with its system font, Helvetica Neue. Eww. The font may look good with a Retina display — I wouldn’t know. On my MacBook Pro, it looks plug ugly. The smaller it is, the worse it looks.

The good news is that it’s ridiculously easy to switch back to the familiar and highly readable Lucida Grande. GitHub has a page with the necessary download. Thank you, schreibenstein, whoever you are. Another GitHub page has files for Fira Sans. Thank you, Jens Kutilek.

Yosemite’s new Finder icon makes the old one look downright dignified. Not an improvement. And the greyish menus make OS X 10.10 feel more like 10.4 (Tiger). Yosemite’s bright blue folder icons make me think of Breaking Bad, but these days everything makes me think of Breaking Bad. Elaine and I are blasting our way through its six seasons.

What I like about Yosemite: things look (mostly) brighter, cleaner. Coming out of sleep, the computer seems to connect to wireless more quickly. And the redesigned Spotlight is very fast. Bravo for that.

Related reading
Apple Yosemite Finder Icon Sucks (Wallydavid)
Helvetica sucks (Erik Spiekermann)
How to not send Spotlight data to Apple (Cult of Mac)
Why Apple’s New Font Won’t Work On Your Desktop (Tobias Frere-Jones)

Walser walking

Speaking to the superintendent or inspector of taxes, the story’s narrator defends his habit of walking:

“Without walking and the contemplation of nature which is connected with it, without this equally delicious and instructive, equally refreshing and constantly admonishing search, I deem myself lost, and indeed am lost. With the utmost attention and love the man who walks must study and observe every smallest living thing, be it a child, a dog, a fly, a butterfly, a sparrow, a worm, a flower, a man, a house, a tree, a hedge, a snail, a mouse, a cloud, a hill, a leaf, or no more than a paltry discarded scrap of paper on which, perhaps, a dear good child at school has written his first clumsy letters.

“The highest and lowest, most serious as well as most hilarious things are to him equally beloved, beautiful, and valuable.”

Robert Walser, The Walk, trans. Christopher Middleton with Susan Bernofsky (New York: New Directions, 2012).
Robert Walser loved to walk. He died while walking on December 25, 1956.

Other Walser posts
Microscripts : “The most unimportant things” : On automobiles : On reading : On stationery stores : On staying small : On youth

Monday, October 20, 2014

Glen Campbell’s last song

“I’m still here but yet I’m gone”: Glen Campbell’s “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” is a powerful song. To my mind it belongs in the company of the Beach Boys’ “’Til I Die” and Johnny Cash’s recording of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt”: existential statements, all.

Water towers of New York

The photographer Ronnie Farley on New York water towers: “They’re the only natural looking thing in the skyline.” There’s a story at WNYC’s Studio 360. And here’s a portfolio of Farley‘s water-tower photographs. Of the two water-tank manufacturers mentioned in the WNYC story, one has a website (with vertigo-inducing photographs); the other has a website coming soon.

[No hampers around these water towers.]

“The damned desire of having”

A striking phrase from Rolfe Humphries’s 1955 translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses: “the damned desire of having.” The phrase ends a catalogue of new arrivals from the Iron Age: “trickery and slyness, plotting, swindling, / Violence and the damned desire of having.” In Latin, book one, line 131, it goes like this: “amor sceleratus habendi ,” the polluted, profaned, defiled love of having.

I love the Humphries translation of the poem. His Lucretius is somewhere on my (imaginary) to-read list.

Other Ovid posts
In the palace of Rumor : Ovid’s Polyphemus : Raymond Carver and Ovid

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Scenic wallpaper

Cooper Hewitt’s Object of the Day, yesterday: mid-twentieth-century scenic wallpaper, manufactured by the J. C. Eisenhart Wall Paper Co., Hanover, Pennsylvania. Imagining a wall of this stuff makes me think of the problem of infinite regress. It’s rivers and trees, all the way down. And across.

You can subscribe to Cooper Hewitt’s Object of the Day and get all kinds of interesting objects through the mail.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Domestic comedy

“‘. . . the wine-dark fleece.’ Was that one mine?”

“No, that was mine.”

Related reading
All OCA domestic comedy posts (Pinboard)

[Not all fleeces are golden.]

Mark Trail arrows

[Mark Trail, October 14, 15, 16, 17, 2014.]

Mark is back from Africa and just back from fishing with Rusty. He has asked neighbor Mitch Wilson to come over. Mark to Mitch: “I’m aware of your expertise with a longbow.” What are you trying to say, Mark? A weirdly sexualized archery contest follows: Mitch shoots (THIP), Cherry shoots (THUP), Mark shoots (THK), and Mitch splits Mark’s arrow. That's the sound of SHUK. Oh SHUK.

I like this panel from the October 15 strip. Cherry’s is-it-a-smile-or-is-it-a-grimace suggests that her real calling was a career in Grade-B noir. Careful, Mitch. And Mark.

Related reading
All OCA Mark Trail posts (Pinboard)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Edgar who?

From Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1977), the first of three volumes recounting the writer’s 1933–1934 walk across Europe. Here Leigh Fermor is visiting a Benedictine monastery, Göttweig Abbey, in the company of a shoemaker named Paul:

He led me along an upper cloister to see an Irish monk of immense age and great charm. His words are all lost, but I can still hear his soft West of Ireland voice. Except for his long Edgar Wallace cigarette holder, our host could have sat for a picture of St. Jerome.
Edgar Wallace (1875–1932) was a writer of immense output. Today he may be best known as the writer of the first draft of the screenplay for King Kong (1933). Wallace appeared on the cover of the April 15, 1929 issue of Time, cigarette holder in hand and mouth.

[Image from Time Cover Search.]

The image of St. Jerome with a cigarette holder is best left to the individual imagination.

Related posts
From A Time of Gifts : One word from A Time of Gifts : Leigh Fermor’s Brueghel : Leigh Fermor’s eye

[Monks smoke?!]

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

“Objects on which to lavish attention”

Susan Sontag, in “The Aesthetics of Silence” (Styles of Radical Will, 1969):

In one of its aspects, art is a technique for focusing attention, for teaching skills of attention. (While the whole of the human environment might be so described — as a pedagogic instrument — this description particularly applies to works of art.) The history of the arts is tantamount to the discovery and the formulation of a repertory of objects on which to lavish attention.
Back in grad school, I put these sentences on the syllabus for my freshman lit and comp class. Some nerve. I was an optimistic kid. Still am.

A universal question

“I love the idea that somehow this is the universal question, the thing that unites us”: Where do birds go when it rains? (xkcd).

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Protecting the Chuck

Converse on in the courts:

In complaints filed with the International Trade Commission and in federal court, Converse claims that 31 retailers and manufacturers have infringed on one or more of its shoe’s trademark designs, including one or two black stripes, and the so-called cap above the toe. The Converse star is not in question.
Read it all: Converse Sues to Protect Its Chuck Taylor All Stars (The New York Times).

Converse All Stars puzzle me. At one time I lived in them. I still have a pair that I wear once a year, when I dress up as a younger me on Halloween. How I — or anyone — ever played basketball in Chucks is beyond me: they offer no support.


Checking on the fortunes of university hashtags always fills me with dismay. Yesterday, for instance, a tweeting undergrad advised prospective students to prepare for liver damage. His tweet coincided with a day-long open house for high-schoolers. Brilliant. This undergrad has company everywhere — tweeters who proclaim that they get weird, that they go hard, that their schools outdo all others in getting and staying drunk, hashtag, hashtag, hashtag. Granted, such tweeters are a fraction of a fraction of any student body (or as William Strunk Jr. would have preferred, the studentry). Yet such tweeters contribute mightily to shaping — or disfiguring — a school’s public face. They give that face a bulbous rosy nose.

O digital naïfs, when you take to the airwaves in these ways, you’re cheapening the value of your fellow students’ degrees, along with the value of your own degrees, should you attain them. That’s #stupid.

Related posts
Homeric blindness in “colledge” : Digital naïfs : Naïf watch : Naïf watch : Naïfs and Big Bird

[“Digital naïf”: my coinage. As I wrote in 2010, “so-called digital natives are often in the dark, or at least in dimly-lit rooms, when it comes to digital technology. Many so-called digital natives are in truth digital naïfs.”]

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Hi and Lois, the sixtieth anniversary

I’ve noticed in recent weeks that the artwork in Hi and Lois seems to be getting better. I don’t think it’s my imagination: as I learned today, the strip is nearing its sixtieth anniversary, a good reason to neaten up. People are watching. You can read more about the anniversary here and here. But let me make my case about the art:

[Hi and Lois, September 16, 2014.]

Those walls! Or is it wall? This panel has the general strangeness that has prompted me to speculate that the Flagstons live in a German Expressionist suburb. See also this 2011 interior.


[Hi and Lois, September 19, 2014.]

The rooms of the Flagston house are often rendered, at least in the daily strip, in the most minimal way: white space and dripping black lines. The panel above is representative.


[Hi and Lois, October 17, 2014.]

Again with the dripping lines. But the background is, well, backier. Things are getting better.


[Hi and Lois, October 11, 2014.]

Here too, a better background. I especially like the care the artist has taken with the clapboards. Consider this 2008 panel as a contrast.


Sunday’s Hi and Lois always seems more carefully drawn. And for some time now, the Sunday strip has been getting its gradients on. (Does any other strip vary so much between daily and Sunday modes?) But look at the difference between these Sunday panels:

[Hi and Lois, September 28, 2014.]

The only real background: Lois. Lois, you’re a fine woman. You deserve better.

[Hi and Lois, October 12, 2014.]

The amount of background detail in this panel from today’s strip is especially noteworthy. Depth!

I look forward to the week of Hi and Lois anniversary strips that starts tomorrow. It will be interesting to see what happens to the strip’s art after that.

Related reading
All OCA Hi and Lois posts (Pinboard)

Friday, October 10, 2014

Three Virgils

Something I wrote when comparing translations by Robert Fitzgerald, Stanley Lombardo, and Stephen Mitchell:

A translation of a poem as vast as the Odyssey rises or falls not in its treatment of great, memorable lines — such as those that describe Argos, lying neglected and bug-ridden on a pile of dung — but in its treatment of what might be called ordinary lines, those that go by in a way that invites no special attention from a reader. Someone walks into town; someone offers a greeting; someone serves a meal: the translator must attend to it all.
So too with Virgil’s Aeneid , which I’m now teaching. A couple of days ago I found myself admiring these lines from Stanley Lombardo’s 2005 translation (in the Latin, 4.522–529):
It was night, and all over earth weary bodies
Lay peacefully asleep. Woods and wild seas
Had fallen still, and the stars were midway
In their gliding orbits. Ox and meadow were
And all the brilliant birds who haunt
The lapping lakes and tangled hedgerows
Were nestled in sleep under the dark, silent

But not Dido, unhappy heart.
For me, Lombardo’s translation of these lines shines even brighter when read against translations by Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Fagles. Here is Fitzgerald’s 1983 translation:
The night had come, and weary in every land
Men’s bodies took the boon of peaceful sleep.
The woods and the wild seas had quieted
At that hour when the stars are in mid-course
And every field is still; cattle and birds
With vivid wings that haunt the limpid lakes
Or nest in thickets in the country places
All were asleep under the silent night.
Not, though, the agonized Phoenician queen.
And Fagles’s 2006 translation:
                                     The dead of night,
and weary living creatures throughout the
are enjoying peaceful sleep. The woods and
    savage seas
are calm, at rest, the circling stars are gliding
In their midnight courses, all the fields lie
and the flocks and gay and gorgeous birds
    that haunt
the deep clear pools and the thorny country
all lie quiet now, under the silent night, asleep.
But not the tragic queen . . .
In FItzgerald’s translation, the clause beginning “cattle and birds” seems weighted down with prepositional phrases: “with vivid wings,” “in thickets,” “in the country places,” “under the silent night.” Fagles’s translation is marred by clichés (“dead of night,” “savage seas”), redundancy (“living creatures,” “calm, at rest”), and strangely extravagant phrasing (“gay and gorgeous birds”). Here as elsewhere in his translations, he . . . trails off.

Looking at Fitzgerald and Fagles helps me to notice how Lombardo captures the Latin pictaeque (“painted,” “colored”) with the one word brilliant and avoids the predictable “silent night.” Looking at the Latin (via the Perseus Digital Library) helps me to admire what Lombardo does with the final line, “At non infelix animi Phoenissa” (literally, ”But not the unhappy Phoenician soul”). From soul to heart : a reasonable shift. And, I suspect, a tip of the hat: in William Morris’s 1876 translation, 4.529 refers to Dido as “that most unhappy heart.”

For my money, it’s Lombardo first, Fitzgerald second, and Fagles a distant third.

Related posts
Aeschylus in three translations
Three more Virgils
Translators at work and play
Whose Homer?

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Sharpening yourself

From pencilsandotherthings, an account of an initiation rite for new employees of the MItsubishi Pencil Company. I like these words of a Mitsubishi executive: “A pencil cannot be of service unless it is sharpened. In the same spirit, I encourage you to be diligent in sharpening yourself, even after this first day.”

[Found via Lexikaliker.]

OS X Text to Speech inhalations

A beautiful detail of OS X’s Text to Speech: “Alex,” by far the most natural sounding of the six Text to Speech voice choices, begins sentences of eight or more words with a slight inhalation. Seven words, no inhaling. Eight or more, he inhales.

If you listen to radio or television commercials closely, it’s easy to notice missing inhalations. Omit needless breaths: that’s the logic, to cram in as many words as possible. The result of course sounds highly unnatural. That someone or ones at Apple took the time to work out a logic of breathing for Text to Speech is deeply impressive. Hey, Apple: I noticed.

[My favorite use for Text to Speech: proofreading text I’ve transcribed.]

Flannery O’Connor on interpretation

Flannery O’Connor, writing to a professor of English in 1961:

The meaning of a story should go on expanding for the reader the more he thinks about it, but meaning cannot be captured in an interpretation. If teachers are in the habit of approaching a story as if it were a research problem for which any answer is believable so long as it is not obvious, then I think students will never learn to enjoy fiction.
O’Connor’s letter is available at Letters of Note.

Related posts
Against “deep reading”
Seventeen ideas about interpretation

[I guess I just wasn’t made for e-times. I had the book Letters of Note as an e-loan for two weeks and got only a quarter of the way through. Out of sight is out of mind, or at least my mind.]

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

No smoking

I didn’t realize until the late afternoon: it’s twenty-five ago today that I smoked my last cigarette. And I still notice the cigarette displays in convenience stores and supermarkets. Look, there are the Camels. Look, there’s the Drum. I still sense the magnetic field when I walk past the shop where I bought tobacco and papers for three or four years. I still dream of cigarettes, and then I dream of them some more. I have engaged in a self-interview about smoking, and another, and I still identify with Apollinaire’s beautiful poem “Hôtel”: “Je ne veux pas travailler je veux fumer.”

Just last week, after a wonderful lunch with Elaine, I was sipping coffee, and I felt a pang. If someone had offered me a cigarette at that moment, I wouldn’t have wanted to resist. But you can’t smoke in restaurants anymore, and besides, it was almost twenty-five years since I’d stopped. I am, like they say, so over cigarettes. Never even think of them even.

Elaine and I wrote a song several years ago in response to an unusually specific Google search: “Please Don’t Smoke.” It’s addressed to seven-year-olds (really), but it’s good advice for all.

Seventeen ideas about interpretation

1. Literature exceeds criticism. There are no complete interpretations; there are only complete poems, novels, plays.

2. Criticism is about literature. It makes a gesture toward identifying or illuminating some aspect(s) of a work or works.

3. Criticism is not a negation of pleasure. Knowing more about what it is you’re reading can only inform and deepen pleasure, if there’s genuine pleasure to be had. Knowledge (not ignorance) is bliss.

4. One interprets, but one interprets what’s there. In other words, criticism involves a reader and a text.

5. We can value works that concern our own particular preoccupations. But we can’t merely hunt for — or worse, create — our own preoccupations within texts. We can also read for something other than our own preoccupations. Or we might find in a work of literature a new preoccupation. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, was a serious student of Buddhism.

6. It’s a truism to say that a work of literature means something different to each reader. But the meanings of a work of literature are contained in language, and words cannot mean anything.

7. What a text can be said to mean and what its author can be said to have meant: these are two ways of talking about the same thing.

8. The meaning of the text isn’t in an author’s mind but in all the relevant intricacies of her or his words.

9. How do you know what an author meant? By reading and reading and reading what she or he wrote and constructing a sense of what the text means. And, perhaps, after doing that for a long time, by reading what other (good) readers have written too.

10. A text’s significance is not of its author’s making. For instance, the ways in which the Iliad has a particular significance to the philosopher Simone Weil thinking about Nazi Germany, or to the poet Alice Notley thinking about the war in Vietnam. For instance, the ways in which William Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud” can serve as a paradigm for thinking about Romantic poetry and nature.

11. A question to always consider: what’s the basis for making a particular interpretive move? What’s the basis for saying that the red wheelbarrow is anything other than a wheelbarrow? The basis for a move might be an appeal to what an author meant, to textual evidence, or to interpretive conventions. It’s not enough just to say that “x” is what you get from the poem. The questions that follow: Did you really get “x” from the poem? (See no. 5.) If so how? And if so, is the how a plausible how? (Is, say, counting the number of letters in a poem a plausible how?)

12. Good readers notice details, and they know what details have pointed them toward particular understandings of what they’ve read.

13. Many student-readers don’t realize that interpretation is typically a matter of adjusting and refining and revising — noticing one detail, noticing another, noticing something else that requires rethinking what you were thinking. The hermeneutic circle — from a sense of the parts, we construct a sense of the whole; from a sense of the whole, we construct a sense of the parts — suggests that interpretation is continually under revision. All of which might mean that really reading works of literature often demands more time than is available in a survey course.

14. Many student-readers profess disdain for “the critics” while simultaneously seeing in critical work an enormous interpretive authority.

15. It’s not scandalous that critics can often explicate works with greater facility than the makers of those works can muster. The work of noticing and explaining is different from the work of making literature, just as musicological analysis is different from making music. And many makers, whatever their critical abilities, prefer not to explain, just as composers and visual artists do. An interpretation provided by a maker would in any event be an interpretation. (See no. 1.)

16. To say that an interpretation is plausible need not mean that you agree with it. To say that an interpretation is plausible is to say that it deserves consideration. Allowing for points of view other than your own is typically called critical pluralism.

17. What makes an interpretation plausible? The ways in which it accounts or doesn’t account for a text. What makes an interpretation implausible? The ways in which it accounts or doesn’t account for a text.

[The number in the post title is no Internet ploy: I wrote these observations, with this title, somewhere in the late 1980s or the early 1990s, probably to share with students in a course on “theory.” The printout is from an Apple ImageWriter. What’s underlined there is italicized here.The context for no. 11: a hypothetical off-the-wall interpretation of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” See also this post.]

From the same file folder
Aglio e olio
The Art Ensemble of Chicago in Boston
Coppola/“Godfather” sauce
Jim Doyle on education
Mary Backstayge marigold seeds
A Meeting with Ludwig Wittgenstein
Tile-pilfering questionnaire

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Leigh Fermor’s Brueghel

From Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube (1977), the first of three volumes recounting the writer’s 1933–1934 walk across Europe:

The link between journeys and painting, especially this sort of journey, is very close. There was plenty to think about as I made my way through the snow-bound monastic orchards; and it occurred to me, in the silent fields that followed, and for the hundredth time since my landing in Holland, that so far one painter had presided over every stage of this Winterreise. When no buildings were in sight, I was back in the Dark Ages. But the moment a farmhouse or a village impinged, I was in the world of Peter Brueghel. The white flakes falling beside the Waal — or the Rhine or the Neckar or the Danube — and the zigzag gables and the muffled roofs, were all his. The icicles, too, and the trampled snow, the logs piled on the sledges and the peasants stooped double under loads of faggots. When children with woollen hoods and satchels burst out of a village school with a sudden scamper of miniature clogs, I knew in advance that in a moment they would be flapping their arms and blowing on mittened fingers and clearing a space to beat a top in, or galloping down a lane to slide on the nearest brook, with everyone—children, grown-ups, cattle and dogs — moving about in the wake of their own cloudy breath. When the wintry light crept dimly from slits close to the horizon or an orange sun was setting through the branches of a frozen osier-bed, the identity was complete.
The cover of the New York Review Books reprint shows a detail of Hunters in the Snow. Muffled roofs: exactly. Katy Homans is the book’s designer. Here is an article about her NYRB covers.

Related posts
From A Time of Gifts : One word from A Time of Gifts : Leigh Fermor’s eye

Monday, October 6, 2014

Word of the day: hamper

Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time of Gifts (1977), I keep a pencil and memo pad at hand to collect words that need looking up, mostly (so far) words from architecture, art, and German. This flurry had me reaching for my pencil: “gables, bell-hampers, well-heads, oriels, and arcades.”

It wasn’t oriel that got me: I already have that one. And a well-head is a structure that covers a well. The puzzle here is bell-hamper. The Oxford English Dictionary has no entry for bell-hamper, and nothing for hamper that seems to help. Webster’s Third strikes out. But there’s a relevant definition of hamper at the UK site Looking at Buildings: “In 20th-century and later architecture, a visually distinct topmost storey or storeys.” And via Google Books, an example of the word in use:

[John Newman, The Buildings of Wales: Glamorgan (New York: Penguin, 1995).]

Thinking about the hamper as the top storey — or story, in AmE — led me back to the OED which — lo! — has an entry for top-hamper. I had missed that term, cross-referenced in a definition of hamper that I’d thought irrelevant:

Naut. Things which form a necessary part of the equipment of a vessel, but are in the way at certain times.
That meaning of hamper comes, as you might suspect, from the verb hamper. And here’s top-hamper :
a. Naut. Weight or encumbrance aloft: orig. said of the upper masts, sails, and rigging of a ship; later, also, weight or encumbrance on the deck, as in a steamer, ironclad, etc.

b. transf. and fig. An encumbrance on the top or upper part of anything; something that makes it “top-heavy”; the “head-piece.”
And an OED citation, from Samuel Smiles’s Lives of the Engineers (1861):
Though the top-hamper of houses had long been removed, and the piers patched and strengthened at various times, the [London] bridge was becoming every year less and less adapted for accommodating the increasing traffic to and from the City.
The everyday equivalent of the bell-hamper might be the walls that enclose rooftop water towers.

It amuses me that it’s the top or upper sense that explains the architectural hamper. I like the idea of a hamper as a snug enclosure for a bell. Granted, a bell-hamper wouldn’t be made of wicker. The noun hamper itself is made from the noun hanaper “by elision of middle vowel, and assimilation of np to mp, as in ampersand.” A hanaper is “a case for a hanap [“a drinking-vessel, a wine-cup or goblet”] or hanaps; a plate-basket; a repository for treasure or money,” or “a round wicker case or small basket in which documents were kept.”

Do you see how much work went into figuring out hamper? That’s why it is the word of the day.

Related posts
From A Time of Gifts
Patrick Leigh Fermor’s eye

[A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube is the first of three books recounting Leigh Fermor’s journey from the Netherlands to Turkey. The others: Between the Woods and the Water: On Foot to Constantinople: From The Middle Danube to the Iron Gates (1986) and The Broken Road: Travels from Bulgaria to Mount Athos (2013). The first two books have been reissued by New York Review Books.]

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Anthony Bourdain in the Bronx

One word to describe Anthony Bourdain in the Bronx: insufferable. Bourdain insists again and again that he is ignorant of the borough, “ridiculously, shamefully ignorant.” He sits in a Bronx park from which he can see his Manhattan “house” and marvels that he has no idea where he is. (Hint: turn on Location Services.) He describes the borough as a “blank space,” “the great unknown.” The Bronx is also for him, I daresay, the Dark Borough, land of colorful ethnic peoples. Most embarrassing moment: “I didn’t know there were Hondurans here.”

At least Bourdain — or his native informant — had the good sense to include a visit to City Island. But to pass up Arthur Avenue? Where Marty Piletti butchered? Not exotic enough, I guess. Marone.

[The Addeo Bakery appears on screen for a split-second. But no visit to Arthur Avenue.]

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Recently updated

Grammar brawl There’s a plea.

Bourdain in the Bronx

Tomorrow night on CNN: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown visits the Bronx.

Friday, October 3, 2014

“Locally Grown”

I picked up a head of red leaf lettuce at the supermarket the other day. “Locally Grown,” said the wrapper. The grower is in Michigan, 268 miles away.

There is no single standard for “locally grown.” A 2008 bill, H.R. 2419, defines a “locally or regionally produced agricultural product” as one

(i) which is produced and distributed in the locality or region where the finished product is marketed;

(ii) which has been shipped a total distance of 400 or fewer miles, as determined by the Secretary [of Agriculture]; and

(iii) about which the distributor has conveyed to the end-use consumers information regarding the origin of the product or production practices, or other valuable information.
The first two conditions seem nearly contradictory: few if any shoppers at a farmers market would think of “locally grown” produce as having originated 400 miles away. The joining of locally and regionally here engenders confusion.

“Locally grown” begins to look meaningless: all produce, wherever it’s grown, is grown locally. The real question is where it’s sold.

A film about grammar

Grammar Revolution is a film from David and Elizabeth O’Brien. Any film with Bryan Garner and John McWhorter and Steven Pinker is a film I want to see, though I suspect that they and all other interviewees appear separately. It’s safer that way: no fireworks, or fisticuffs.

Related reading
All OCA grammar posts

Keep On Keepin’ On

In The New York Times, the story of Keep On Keepin’ On (dir. Alan Hicks, 2014), a documentary about the friendship of the trumpeter and flugelhornist Clark Terry and the pianist Justin Kauflin: “A Rare Musical Mentorship, Captured With Heart and Soul.” Here’s the film’s website.

Many years ago I had the good fortune to interview Clark Terry for an hour on my university’s FM station. A Basie-ite. An Ellingtonian. A great musician, and a great man.

Goodbye, Naked City

[Zohra Lampert says goodbye. From the final moments of the Naked City episode “Barefoot on a Bed of Coals,” May 29, 1963. Click any image for a larger view.]

It would be nice to know whether the makers of Naked City knew that this episode was to be the show’s last. End of the season or end of the series — either way, the long goodbye is fitting.

“Barefoot on a Bed of Coals” is a strange episode with a baffling start. The episode looks at the life of Stanley Walenty (Steven Hill), a police wannabe who patrols his pretend beat wearing a real uniform and carrying a real gun. His downstairs neighbor Clara Espuella (Zohra Lampert) knows none of that. All she knows is that she’s smitten with Stanley. In the episode’s long final shot, Clara says goodbye to him as he’s taken to the hospital with a wound from a real criminal’s gun.

The final scene plays out on East Fourth Street, between the Bowery and Second Avenue. It’s an appropriate location for an episode focused on make-believe: this block of East Fourth was and is a world of theater. Notice the Writers’ Stage and East End Theatre on the right. Today, the block is home to La MaMa (nos. 66 and 74A), Duo Multicultural Arts Center (no. 62), and the New York Theatre Workshop (no. 79).

There are now fifty-three Naked City posts in the Orange Crate Art archives. Naked City is one the great television series, and it’s all on DVD.

[You might recognize Zohra Lampert as Angelina from Splendor in the Grass (dir. Elia Kazan, 1961).]


June 3, 2015: The closing shot of the film Side Street (dir. Anthony Mann, 1949) might have inspired this episode’s ending. See what you think.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Recently updated

Wheeldex This dowdy-world object has turned up in a comic strip.

Bob Conant on bookselling

From an interview with Bob Conant, co-owner of St. Mark’s Bookshop:

“Amazon is a villain. What they’re attempting to do is put bookstores out of business — and publishers. What’s interesting to me is the backlash starting to develop. People realize if they want books to continue, they have to support bookstores, and they have to support publishers.”

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Spellings of the future

[As seen in print.]

In a 2009 post about “the new literacy,” I wrote that I was beginning to see misspellings that I could never have imagined: and for an, pros for prose. As I later figured out, such misspellings are/our in fact spellings of the future, traveling backward in time to give us a foretaste of our — or are ? — language’s evolution. Our for are is one I’ve seen twice recently.

Other spellings of the future
Aww : Bard-wired fence : Now : Self-confidance : Where