Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, December 30, 2010

posts unwritten, end-of-year edition, part 2

How interesting would it be to have a writer’s every keystroke recorded and played back? Pretty interesting, perhaps, but I don't want it to happen to me.

Though I think Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon is one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, I somehow never got around to reading his next, Against the Day — but Dale Peck makes me think I should. I could blog my way through it right here. . . .

Carlin Romano worries, intelligently, about whether professors will retain the strength of will to assign whole books, given shortening attention spans. This here professor will, but that’s just one data point. Reading tough books can be challenging in a fun way.

More than a year ago Matthew Battles warned us against un-historical invocations of Gutenberg.
C. W. Anderson has a really cool annotated syllabus for Print Culture 101.

I think Heart of Darkness is a really bad choice for a graphic novel retelling — too much of its power lies in the magnificent narrative voice, e.g.:

I looked at him, lost in astonishment. There he was before me, in motley, as though he had absconded from a troupe of mimes, enthusiastic, fabulous. His very existence was improbable, inexplicable, and altogether bewildering. He was an insoluble problem. It was inconceivable how he had existed, how he had succeeded in getting so far, how he had managed to remain -- why he did not instantly disappear. 'I went a little farther,' he said, 'then still a little farther -- till I had gone so far that I don't know how I'll ever get back. Never mind. Plenty time. I can manage. You take Kurtz away quick -- quick -- I tell you.' The glamour of youth enveloped his parti-coloured rags, his destitution, his loneliness, the essential desolation of his futile wanderings. For months -- for years -- his life hadn't been worth a day's purchase; and there he was gallantly, thoughtlessly alive, to all appearances indestructible solely by the virtue of his few years and of his unreflecting audacity. I was seduced into something like admiration -- like envy. Glamour urged him on, glamour kept him unscathed. He surely wanted nothing from the wilderness but space to breathe in and to push on through. His need was to exist, and to move onwards at the greatest possible risk, and with a maximum of privation. If the absolutely pure, uncalculating, unpractical spirit of adventure had ever ruled a human being, it ruled this bepatched youth. I almost envied him the possession of this modest and clear flame. It seemed to have consumed all thought of self so completely, that even while he was talking to you, you forgot that it was he -- the man before your eyes -- who had gone through these things. I did not envy him his devotion to Kurtz, though. He had not meditated over it. It came to him, and he accepted it with a sort of eager fatalism. I must say that to me it appeared about the most dangerous thing in every way he had come upon so far.

This can't be represented graphically any more than a Picasso can be represented textually.


  • "This can't be represented graphically any more than a Picasso can be represented textually."

    This is a monstrously important point, especially as we rush headlong into an experiential environment that does fair justice to text, but liquifies music and is simply pitiful in conveying the experience of a painting or a photograph.

    People below a certain age already prefer the sound of compressed music to full-scale digital files, and I fairly well wept when I saw Alexis Madrigal (favorably) compare a hipstimatic snap of the Flatiron Building to a famous contact print of the same.

  • Etherpad: wow! As someone who has lived and died by version control systems for many years, I've wished many times for some way to recover that paragraph I deleted nine saves ago. The DEC-20 I worked on in the mid-80s made this possible, quietly archiving the old version when you saved a new one, so that you could go back if you needed to. Why did that feature go away?

    But my eyes bugged out when I went to the Etherpad page, pressed the play button, and watched the article itself being written. Writers more experienced than me have probably long forgotten how baffling a blank sheet of paper can be. To see how one competent writer went about turning his own blank sheet into a finished piece--well, I will be spending some time studying how James Somers did the trick.

    Now, if I could just get some good writers to use something like Etherpad to show me some other workaday techniques for putting words on a page ....

  • Alan, I do not know you, and so your welfare is an abstract concept to me. But, assuming you are a decent, upstanding chap who doesn't deserve to suffer unduly, please allow me to offer some well-intentioned advice:

    In the name of all that is holy, don't read Against the Day. I have actually kept it on my bookshelf with the marker still in it, to commemorate the moment when I said "Screw you, Pynchon" and gave up trying to hack my way through unyielding thickets of needlessly abstruse prose, obscure reference and rococo plotting. I read and enjoyed both V. and The Crying of Lot 49, but as God is my witness Against the Day overwhelmed what generosity I had for its author, who clearly doesn't care a whit for the once-cherished notion of clarity.

    On the other hand, if you were to blog your way through it, I'd be interested. (That was the only way I made myself finish the execrable 2666. ) I don't think I could force myself to read along, but I'd at least be rooting for you.

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