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Six Memos for the Next Millennium

Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the New Millennium

Cover of SF Chronicle Boos Review

A friend and I were talking.

One of my favorites is Italo Calvino, she said.
Oh, yes!… I used to review some of his books for the San Francisco Chronicle.
Which ones?
My favorite was Six Memos for the New Millennium.
I love that one! Can you send it to me?… The review, I mean.
Maybe? That must have been around thirty years ago. But I think I do still have some old reviews in a box. I’ll see if I can dig it out for you.

And I did. And here it is.


Writing as a Perfect Crystal

Six Memos for the Next Millennium

The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures, 1985–1986
By Italo Calvino; translated by Patrick Creagh
Harvard University Press; 136 pages; $12.95

In Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino, master of startling literary transformations in such works as Invisible Cities, Cosmicomics, and If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, shares his personal alchemical formula for literary Gold.

These lectures, intended for presentation at Harvard University in 1985, are precisely worded, carefully crafted, beautifully illustrated examples of the literary essay and inspiring demonstrations of Calvino’s argument that writing should have the definition, luminescence, and perfection of structure of a crystal. (The book is marred only by the failure of Harvard University Press to credit Patrick Creagh’s excellent translation.)

Calvino’s formula is idiomatic and personal. It will be difficult for literary critics to apply it as a test of value or for aspiring writers to use it as a recipe for their own magical creations. But it provides a brilliant, original approach to literature, a key to Calvino’s own work, and a thoroughly delightful and illuminating commentary on some of the world’s greatest writing.

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Eliot Weinberger, literary renegade

On an overcast evening last November, I met the American essayist and translator Eliot Weinberger at a gentrified West Village coffee shop. Having got there early, I was looking out the window to see him approach: an impressively balding man dressed in austere literary attire—faded navy jacket, plain t-shirt, lit European cigarette—placidly weaving his way through a crowd of suited professionals and hip yuppies.

It was an apt image, in its gentle anachronisms. The village, once a cheap artistic refuge, has today turned into a playground for supermodels and hedge funders. Most of its (and America’s) writers have in turn gentrified themselves, leaving society for this or that university. But through these dismal decades of late-capitalism, Weinberger has remained heroically independent: a lonely polymath upholding American modernism from his apartment.

This principled independence is one reason that he’s developed a cult following home and abroad, even if his books have been largely ignored by the American press. I first came across him when a renegade Chinese professor handed me a roughed-up copy of his 1987 pamphlet on translation, ‘19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei’, with the following words: “Weinberger is the only Westerner who understands Tang poetry.” A new version of that book, along with his latest collection of essays, The Ghost of Birds, were recently published in the U.S. They were my pretext for meeting him, though of course I hardly needed one….

From a profile by Ratik Asokan of my friend Eliot Weinberger in The Hindu. Please continue reading there.

Beyond Shakespeare at The Critical Flame

"Beyond Shakespeare" at <em>The Critical Flame</em>

“Beyond Shakespeare” at The Critical Flame.

Thanks to Daniel Pritchard and the Critical Flame for publishing my short opinion piece on Shakespeare and globalism. I wrote the piece in conjunction with my participation in the 1616 Symposium held at Rhodes College in April.

The Critical Flame is a great online magazine devoted to encouraging “intelligent public discussion about literature and culture through long-form literary and critical essays covering a wide range of topics.”

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New York Public Library provides hi-res images for free use

"Tri-boro Barber School, 264 Bowery, Manhattan, , 1935-1939, by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Photograph; gelatin silver print, matte. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Tri-boro Barber School, 264 Bowery, Manhattan, 1935-1939, by Berenice Abbott (1898-1991). Photograph; gelatin silver print, matte. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

It’s encouraging to see libraries and museums beginning to make public domain images freely available, increasingly providing high-resolution scans or photos for downloading. Historically, they have guarded images of objects in their collections as a private source of income. Count the New York Public Library among the honorable elite who have made their pd images available to be shared. The library has just put up more than 180,000 images in hi-res free for the downloading. Highlights of the collection include photographs from the Farm Security Administration and Works Progress Administration, Medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, Walt Whitman papers (1854–1892), and early film shorts.

Car and homemade trailer on U.S. 101 near King City, California. Man and wife middle-aged, from Wisconsin. "Old Man Depression sent us out on the road ... You don't know anything about how many people are living in trailers till you 'hit' Florida, 1936, by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). Photograph. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Car and homemade trailer on U.S. 101 near King City, California. Man and wife middle-aged, from Wisconsin. “Old Man Depression sent us out on the road … You don’t know anything about how many people are living in trailers till you ‘hit’ Florida, 1936, by Dorothea Lange (1895-1965). Photograph. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

 

 

The pot in the garden

early 17th c. pipe

early 17th c. pipe

Shakespeare’s garden, that is (click image for link to BBC video).

 

 

Coming soon to an HR department near you?

Partial IBM-Watson Results for Tom's Garden Post

IBM has developed a program called the “The IBM Watson Personality Insights Service” that “uses linguistic analytics to extract a spectrum of cognitive and social characteristics from the text data that a person generates through blogs, tweets, forum posts, and more.”

I don’t know how this thing works, but let’s try it out on some samples of literature. It requires a minimum of 100 words of text. I chose the first page (or a substantial chunk therefrom) of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, and James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. I also included one of Emily Dickinson’s longer poems, “I cannot live with You.”

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What is water?

Cool video made from David Foster Wallace commencement address.

Tom Kristensen

tom kristensen, haervaerk (havoc)

Maybonne returned recently from a trip to Europe, which included a swing through northern Germany and Denmark. While there she took a few pictures of Christensen-related books and signage, including this shelf featuring the best-known title of Tom Kristensen (1893-1974).

I’ve long had some interest in Kristensen, and not just because of the similarity of our names. I first encountered him in Richard Ellman’s biography of James Joyce. (Apparently Ellman got some of his facts wrong about Joyce and Kristensen, who did a review of the bio.) Kristensen’s book Haervaerk (“Havoc,” shown in the photo) was influenced by Joyce and introduced some of his literary strategies to Denmark. The two men met, and Joyce was interested in Kristensen’s work, which centered around the city of Copenhagen much as Joyce’s centered around Dublin. Haervaerk, which was published in 1930 traces a journalist’s intentional journey of self-ruination.  The book was translated into English by Carl Malmberg as Havoc and published by the University of Wisconsin Press.

There is a good brief appreciation of Haervaerk by Marie (who has a master’s degree in Comparative Literature and Theatre Studies, and is employed as a dramaturge at a chamber opera house in Copenhagen) at the blog “At the Lighthouse.”

 

 

Kansas City Public Library

Kansas City Public Library

Nice. I’m guessing not many patrons have difficulty finding the library.

 

(via viahouse.com)

 

Happy birthday, Jorge Luis Borges

Feliz cien duodécimo, estimado señor autor!

jorge luis borges on imaginary books

Monkeys and squirrels in trees

This image is by the great Mughal painter Abul Hasan (I devote a few pages to him in the book I’m currently working on). Usually called “Squirrels in a Plane Tree,” it was painted by the artist when he was about seventeen. The solid flat background and stylized elements reflect the Persian painting tradition. Later Hasan would move more toward Western-style naturalism.

When I showed this image to Ellen she said, “Oh, the reason you like it is because it looks just like Caps for Sale.” “You’re right!” I said. I hadn’t thought of that comparison, but when our girls were little we used to enjoy that book by Esphyr Slobodkina. It was about a cap peddlar who carried his caps stacked on top of his head. One day he went to sleep under a tree (the cover inverts this, with the peddlar in the tree and monkeys on the ground).

caps for sale cover

While he was sleeping his caps were stolen. Looking up, he saw many monkeys in the tree, each wearing one of his caps. “You monkeys you!” he demanded. “You give me back my caps!” (Eventually he gets them back.)

Stylistically the Caps illustrations and the Hasan painting are not as close as memory made them seem. One of the most obvious differences is that the trunks and branches of the Caps tree are nothing but white space, an interesting strategy. By contrast, in Hasan’s painting the trunk and branches of the tree are one of the most volumetrically shaped elements in the painting.

Despite the differences they do share something of a similar spirit. And both are wonderful.

The Naipaul Test

V. S. Naipaul continues to provoke and offend. In a talk at the Royal Geographic Society he said:

I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me….[A] woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too…My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.

Nothing needs to be said. The statement speaks for itself.

The Guardian did a follow-up, posting short passages from various writings. Now you can test your mettle against Mr. Naipaul. I scored 7 out of 10 correct. The Guardian‘s quiz informs me “Not bad, but you’re no Sir Vidia.” That’s probably a good thing.

Take the test.

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Image via The Telegraph

Randomized Editing

I have a month to polish up the book I’m currently working on, and I’m experimenting with a randomized editing process.

Most writers spend a lot of time on the beginnings of their books, and rightly so since they set the tone and either welcome or drive away potential readers. Endings get some attention as well, but authors and readers alike bog down in the problematic middle, especially around three-fifths of the way through.

In revising, you can start from the beginning and just go as far as you can, or all the way to the end, repeatedly, but this will likely result in a mid-book slump. You can also just identify the most important parts, or the parts that need the most work, and concentrate on them, sanding down the rough patches one after another.

If you’re working in short bursts — in breaks in your day job, for example — you might want to test the water by just dipping in here and there. But, if you’re like me, your dipping is not likely to be very random, so you’re not really doing a good test.

There’s a site called random.org, where you can generate a random sequence of numbers within a certain interval. According to the site, “The randomness comes from atmospheric noise, which for many purposes is better than the pseudo-random number algorithms typically used in computer programs.”

A random sequence, as opposed to a random set where numbers can be repeated, is like pulling numbers from a hat, where once a number is used it can’t be used again. So I’ve generated a random sequence of numbers between 1 and 384, and I’m reviewing pages in the that order. I’ll do this a few times with a few different random sequences.

Is this a good idea? I’m not sure, but I think it might be a helpful corrective, or at least complement, to the kind of directed attention that you’re going to give your manuscript anyway.

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image from kevindooley’s photostream

 

Marilyn Monroe Reading Ulysses

This photo of Marilyn reading Ulysses was taken on Long Island by Eve Arnold in 1954. Marylin was smart, and she liked to read. Here she seems to be at the end of the book, which concludes with these words from Molly’s soliloquoy:

I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

In Solitary Pleasures, a book in which women writers select favourite pictures of women reading, Jeanette Winterson writes of this photo:

This is so sexy, precisely because it’s Marilyn reading James Joyce’s Ulysses. She doesn’t have to pose, we don’t even need to see her face, what comes off the photo is absolute concentration, and nothing is sexier than absolute concentration. There she is, the goddess, not needing to please her audience or her man, just living inside the book. The vulnerability is there, but also something we don’t often see in the blonde bombshell; a sense of belonging to herself. It’s not some playboy combination of brains and boobs that is so perfect about this picture; it is that reading is always a private act, is intimate, is lover’s talk, is a place of whispers and sighs, unregulated and usually unobserved. We are the voyeurs, it’s true, but what we’re spying on is not a moment of body, but a moment of mind. For once, we’re not being asked to look at Marilyn, we’re being given a chance to look inside her.

HarperCollins vs the South Sioux City, Nebraska, Public Library

This interesting standoff between Rupert Murdock’s big publishing conglomerate and a little public library could be a bellwether for future digital book disputes. The SSC Library is boycotting HarperCollins. It is part of a consortium of 60 Nebraska libraries that purchase e-books for library patrons. Until recently the libraries could allow an unlimited number of patrons to check out these materials (just as they do with printed books). But HC changed the terms of the library purchases, now allowing a maximum of 25 check-outs — less than half of one check-out per library. HC says unlimited check-outs could hurt its e-book business, library director David Mixdorf says the new policy “hits on us pretty hard.” It will be interesting to see how this shakes out.

One benefit: patrons may be reading better books during the boycot.

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LINK: KTIV.com

Image via El Bibliomata’s photostream.


Rant: The sorry state of bibliographic records

These days I’m using Zotero to keep track of my references (and what a pain it was transferring references from BibMe, which doesn’t support the standard BibTex format). I’ll make a post about Zotero when I get a chance. Right now I just want to rant about what a crappy job librarians are doing these days with bibliographic information. With Zotero I can enter an ISBN and download book information, but for many books I go to WorldCat, which gathers records from a variety of libraries, and Zotero can also extract those records. But, either way, I nearly always have to edit the result. It seems whoever is entering the records in the library databases can’t tell a subtitle from a publisher, or doesn’t know how to format publisher names, or gets mixed up about dates and authors and editors and other elements. Working with WorldCat this way has been an eye opener about librarians’ lazy or inept data entry. Shouldn’t they be trained to do these things correctly?

Print vs iPad

According to a study by the Nielsen Norman Group (whatever that is), people read the same Hemingway stories faster in print than on the iPad. Besides supposedly revealing that people read text 6.2 percent slower on an iPad than on the printed page, the study, based on a sample of 24 readers (not sure how that worked), also claimed reading on the Kindle was even slower than on the iPad — 10.7 percent slower than print, though the difference was “not statistically significant” (what difference is, with a sample of 24 people?).

This doesn’t sound like a very reliable study, but if what you care about in your reading is speed, it’s probably a good idea to stick with print — at least you will be a little less likely to take a break to check your e-mail.

No. Why do you ask?

Folks online are getting too damn helpful.

Reading up on health care

At the Christian Science Monitor Marjorie Kehe offers a few suggestions for reading up on health care. Her list of five and a half books includes the following:

  • Sick: The Untold Story of America’s Health Care Crisis – and the People Who Pay the Price by Jonathan Cohn
    Case histories illustrating the complexity of insurance and health care issues
  • Overtreated: Why Too Much Medicine Is Making Us Sicker and Poorer by Shannon Brownlee
    Health care and economics.
  • Boomerang: Health Care Reform and the Turn Against Government by Theda Skocpol
    Analyzing the Clinton adminstration’s failed attempt to fix healthcare in 1994 offers interesting background and many instructive points relevant to today’s healthcare debate.
    Also recommended on the same topic: The System: The American Way of Politics at the Breaking Point by Haynes Johnson and David Broder.
  • The Cure: How Capitalism Can Save American Health Care by David Gratzer
    The case against government involvement.
  • The Health Care Mess: How We Got Into It and What It Will Take to Get Out by Julius Richard and Rashi Fein
    The case for government-financed universal healthcare.

I have read none of these. Are they really the best?


New new Shakespeare portraits

More fun with computer morphing. What did Shakespeare look like? It’s possible one of these computer morphs might provide a clue. The image on the left morphs the Sanders and Chandos portraits. The image on the right morphs in three equal parts the Sanders, Cobb, and Chandos portraits.

For a full discussion of what’s going on here, see this previous summary of Shakespeare portraits, with a morph of the Chandos and Cobb images. I have made these new morphs in response to Jim Hale-Sanders’s arguments in favor of the Sanders portrait.

For reference, here are all three morphs, with the original Chandos/Cobb on the right:

all three new Shakespeare portraits


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