Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Much Ado about Nothing

I’m no Noah Millman, but I have something to say about a Shakespeare performance.

Last Friday I saw Much Ado about Nothing at the Globe — or Shakespeare’s Globe, as they insist on calling it — and while I had a wonderful time indeed, I was reminded of an elementary and vital truth about Shakespearean performance: Everything costs.

The keynote of performances at the Globe since its origin, fifteen years ago, is engagement with the audience. On the theory — a pretty good theory, all in all — that the theater in Shakespeare’s time was a boisterous place, with rowdy groundlings hooting and hissing and drinking and pissing while their social betters assumed seats above, the Globe’s actors play to the crowd. They begin with musical entertainment and end with all the actors dancing together. (We hear that this was universal in Shakespeare’s time, but I am quite unable to imagine Lear and Cordelia popping up off the stage floor and jigging about the stage. Doesn't mean it didn’t happen, though.)

In this performance Eve Best, as a delightfully manic and warm-hearted Beatrice, was almost constantly engaged with the audience, sticking with her lines but regularly conversing in dumb-show gestures with someone who shouted from the upper deck and with various groundlings — including one whose hand she begged so that she might kiss it, as though it were Benedick’s hand. Charles Edwards was more restrained as Benedick, with a slightly pompous air: especially memorable was the scene in which he imagines what kind of woman might gain his favor (“Rich she must be; that’s certain”). He assumed a jaunty pose at the edge of the stage and meditatively sipped a summery drink through a tiny straw. There was also a lot of funny stage business — too much for my taste: Paul Hunter as Dogberry reminded me of nothing so much as a refugee from the Benny Hill Show.

There's therefore something to Michael Billington’s complaint that the show “contains more mugging than you'll find in Central Park on a Saturday night” — and yet as soon as I quote that I think it’s unfair, because it was an absolutely delightful evening.

And yet again — you see I’m going back and forth here — and yet again: this delight was costly, something that was clearly evident at one of the crucial moments of the play. When Claudio has denounced Hero, and Benedick has stayed behind to console Beatrice, and they have (somehow, inexplicably, and yet fittingly) confessed their love for each other, Benedick cries, “Come, bid me do anything for thee.” And Beatrice replies: “Kill Claudio.” It is an absolutely bone-chilling sentence — and yet in this performance the audience laughed. I do not blame them: they had to laugh, in a sense, because everything that had gone before had primed them to see this play as the merest frolic.

In contrast, consider the version of the play that most people will know, the Branagh and Thompson vehicle from 1993: there Emma Thompson’s “Kill Claudio” is utterly believable — but believable in part because her whole portrayal of Beatrice has been slightly subdued, even a touch melancholy. You believe her when she says “Kill Claudio,” but that’s because you don't completely believe Leonato when he says, earlier, “There's little of the melancholy element in her, my lord: she is never sad but when she sleeps, and not ever sad then; for I have heard my daughter say, she hath often dreamed of unhappiness and waked herself with laughing.” That sentence perfectly suits Eve Best’s Beatrice; but for that very reason, and also because the whole Globe performance is built around her festival merriness, it is hard for the audience to descend to the depths of bitterness that she reaches in that scene with Benedick: “O God, that I were a man! I would eat his heart in the market-place.”

Shakespeare’s plays are meant for the stage, they live fully there and there only; but no one performance captures the whole of any one play — or even one character, if he or she is one of the major ones, like Beatrice. This is why each play deserves to be performed over and over and over again.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Tallis in Bloomsbury

Yesterday afternoon I was at the British Museum, wandering through the Enlightenment Gallery. I had been there a while and was drifting out of the room when I heard human voices, singing. At first I thought the Museum was piping in a soundtrack, but then I realized that that couldn't be. I paused and noted that the music was coming from somewhere behind me. I turned and walked back toward the center of the room. It was five in the afternoon.

There a crowd of people had gathered around the great Piranesi vase and were singing one of the greatest jewels of the choral music repertoire, Thomas Tallis’s forty-part motet Spem in Alium. I am not especially knowledgable about choral music, but this piece I recognized immediately — as anyone would who had heard it before, because it doesn't really sound like anything else. But I had only heard recorded versions, and frankly, that did little to prepare me for the sheer glory to be had when you’re standing ten feet from the singers in a resonant and beautiful room.

The motet’s forty parts are produced by eight choirs of five voices each, passing melodies and counter-melodies back and forth. The forty singers stood about in their street clothes, some with backpacks or purses at their feet. They held a variety of scores: some had only photocopied pages, others large, elaborate, and probably quite valuable folios. Some of their faces revealed intense concentration, some manifested sheer joy. Next to the Piranesi vase the conductor stood, bent at the waist to see the music laid on the floor at her feet, and swung her left arm in big arcs as though she were holding a bell. A toddler wandered back and forth in the midst of them all, looking up in pleasure and puzzlement at the singers’ faces.

At the moments when Tallis masses all forty voices the effect, for the nearby listener, is essentially indescribable. I felt that I was being showered by light — some golden, overpowering light. (You want to compare the sound to an organ with all the stops pulled out, but the organ was developed to imitate this sound, the vox humana at its fullest and richest and sweetest.) The sopranos arced high over the foundation laid by the basses; each voice threw out another layer of beauty.

Spem in Alium might be said to cry out for a cathedral setting, but this music is a cathedral, if a portable and ephemeral one. And there’s something richly ironic about this music being performed in the Enlightenment gallery of the museum — as though Tallis were looking forward to the self-congratulatory eighteenth century (and to our even more complacent age) and asking, “What light do you have to match this?”

In ten minutes it was over. I stood there for a few minutes more, waiting for the shivers to subside. The singers laughed and embraced one another and talked excitedly; they gradually dispersed. The toddler found his mother, who turned out to be the conductor.

A few minutes later I saw her near the main entrance and approached to thank her. “Oh, that’s kind of you,” she said.

“Who are you people?” I asked.

She smiled — she was constantly smiling, in fact. “Oh, just odds and sods. Some of us knew each other at Oxford and Cambridge. Some are from the Westminster College of Music.”

“So this is guerrilla music.”

“Yeah,” she replied, with a diffident lilt and a bit of a shrug. “Our first guerrilla outing.” She paused a moment and then said, “It’s a lovely piece.”

Yes, I think you can say that. And what a gift Tallis and those singers gave me, and a handful of others, on a Sunday afternoon in the crowd and bustle of the British Museum.

Friday, June 24, 2011

historical knowledge

Yesterday our study group went to Canterbury, where I wanted us to see not just the famous, enormous, and tourist-strewn cathedral — thank God we’re not tourists, huh? — but also the ruins of St. Augustine’s Abbey — a site which from a certain historical point of view is as important as that big old church.

But the coach park had been moved since my previous visit to Canterbury. The lot right next to the Abbey is now cars-only, and we had to park north of the city center. From there I wasn’t sure how to get to the Abbey, since Canterbury fails to follow a clear compass-point grid system. (Seems like the town’s founders could have used Manhattan or the Chicago Loop as a model. Thoughtless of them not to.) We didn't have a lot of time, so I ducked into a shop featuring historical trinkets to ask for directions — but the woman at the desk had no idea where the Abbey was, and suggested I ask the book dealer next door. Unfortunately, though the shop door was open, no one was inside. I tried another shop, then a café, but it appeared that no one in Canterbury had ever heard of St. Augustine’s Abbey.

I submit this little anecdote merely for your reflection.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

anonymity revisited

One of the most common defenses of anonymity on the internet is the one offered by Daniel Solove here:

For all its vices, anonymity has many virtues. With anonymity, people can be free to express unpopular ideas and be critical of people in power without risking retaliation or opprobrium. The anonymity in everyday life enables people to be free to do many worthwhile things without feeling inhibited.

I have no idea what that second sentence means — what “worthwhile things” are people “inhibited” from doing when their names are known? — but the previous sentence I get. And it’s true. But only in certain narrow circumstances. The problem is that over the years I have heard from many people who insist on anonymity in order to protect themselves from “reprisals” when in fact all they’re going to suffer is disagreement. And grownups ought to be able to deal with being disagreed with.

Moreover, every protest against injustice is far more meaningful when the person making it is willing to sign his or her name to it. As the literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin pointed out long ago, in his early work Art and Answerability, to undersign a statement with one’s own name is a powerful act — an act of commitment, responsibility: one becomes “answerable” for it. This is a strong witness to others. Anonymous dissent, by contrast, is often empty to others because no one is answerable to it. Anonymous dissent requires numbers to have an effect. When many protest anonymously their position gains weight additively; the single anonymous protester comes off as a crank or a troll.

Anonymity on the internet may be desirable often but it is necessary only rarely, and surely in 98% of the cases in which it is invoked the conversation would be better when conducted by answerable individuals. Therefore anonymity ought to be hard to achieve. If “undersigning” is the online norm, then people whose hatreds and resentments are just casual will be less likely to trash conversational spaces. The people who genuinely need anonymity can create subterfuges when they need to; even when the use of real names is mandated, that demand is relatively easy to circumvent. On the internet, nobody has to know you’re a dog.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

crisis averted! (maybe)

Herewith a cautionary — or an encouraging — tale. (Depends on how you read it.)

A few weeks ago I started having a problem with my Kindle: it wasn’t holding a charge nearly as well as it had been. It was running out of juice more quickly with every charge, and had reached the point that, with wi-fi off, it was usable for less than three days. Since I am about to spend a summer overseas, and had planned to rely on the Kindle pretty heavily: for every book I’m teaching, or need to consult regularly, this summer, I am using the Kindle version when there is one. I’ve had too many summers carrying massive backpacks of books around that country for this to be a resistible temptation.

But what if the Kindle malfunctions? What if it becomes completely unusable? Having the Kindle along means that I don't have to carry twenty books; but if the Kindle stops working then all twenty of those books disappear. Would I then have to purchase them all (again!) in England? Should I give up on this experiment before I begin and resign myself to carrying an additional backback and therefore experiencing six weeks of aching shoulders and back?

I got on the phone with Amazon and explained my situation. For several days they hemmed and hawed: the customer service people (who were uniformly polite) told me that the tech people wanted me to try A or B or C. Finally, on Monday, I talked to a woman named Kellie and explained that things were getting close to zero hour and I needed to get a new Kindle or else I was going to have to abandon my plan and blame all my aches and pains on Amazon. She replied that she was going to short-circuit the usual procedures and send me a new one immediately. It should arrive today.

This will make some people think that Amazon is serious enough about making the Kindle experiment work for everyone that the e-reading system can be trusted. It will make others think that the whole business of e-reading is fraught with complexities and anxieties and therefore to be avoided at all costs. I leave such judgments to the discernment of my readers.

Friday, June 10, 2011

previews of coming intermissions

My department runs an annual program called Wheaton in England. I haven't participated in the program since 2004, in part because, though it's incredibly fun, it's also incredibly exhausting. But this summer is my son's last chance to go on the program before he enters college — which is to say, this is probably the last time for the Jacobses to go as a family. Plus I get the chance to go with my great friend Brett Foster. So I'm excited.

In a few days we begin, and will be in England until early August, and I'm not sure what that's going to  mean for this blog — except that I'm not going to be posting as often, because (a) internet access will be a bit spotty and (b) I'll be really, really busy. And I don't know what I'll be posting about: there could be more off-topic look-at-this-awesome-old-castle posts. Or I'm-freaked-out-about-Wayne-Rooney's-hair-transplant posts. So be ready for anything, but not much of it.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

YA Saves!

The response from young adult writers and their editors to Megan Cox Gurdon’s recent highly critical op-ed has been, to me anyway, extremely disappointing. Everyone seems concerned to throw up an instinctive, reactive, common front rather than give thoughtful replies.

Look, for example, at the comments gathered here. According to these writers, YA fiction has achieved something no other human invention has ever achieved: it is capable of doing extraordinary, glorious good, and cannot do any harm at all.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s comments are typical in this regard. “Books don’t turn kids into murderers, or rapists, or alcoholics. (Not even the Bible, which features all of these acts.) Books open hearts and minds, and help teenagers make sense of a dark and confusing world. YA literature saves lives. Every. Single. Day.” See? Salvific power, no danger. Even penicillin is dangerous for some people, but not YA fiction!

I was excited for a moment when Libba Bray acknowledged that “Books are dangerous.” Yes! But, oh, wait: “Yes, dangerous. Because they challenge us: our prejudices, our blind spots. They open us to new ideas, new ways of seeing. They make us hurt in all the right ways.” And, it seems, never in the wrong ones. So, not really dangerous at all. Not in any way.

(Another interesting theme in these comments is how much more trustworthy YA writers are than parents. Apparently, while books can only be good, parents are often bad.)

Let’s get serious, people. Everything that has power has power for good and ill. Can we just begin by stating what should be obvious to everyone, that some books — whether for children, young adults, adults, whatever — are good and some are bad? And they’re good and bad in different ways and for different reasons. Some are poorly written but morally sound; some are beautifully written but morally corrupt. Some are bad all round; some are perfectly wonderful.

Of course, there’s no universal accounting for reader response. As G. C, Lichtenberg said, “A book is like a mirror: if an ass looks in, there's no use expecting an apostle to look out.” Mark David Chapman even found in The Catcher in the Rye a reason to kill John Lennon. People are variable creatures, in their responses to books as in all other things. But there are general tendencies that we can try to understand.

What I’d like to see from these YA writers is less panicky defensiveness and more actual thinking. Admit — please — that some books are bad for some people. Admit that writers can make aesthetic misjudgments, so that certain scenes, or even whole books, can have effects on many readers that they don't intend. And admit that some writers — yes, even YA writers — are nasty people who write nasty books. And then try to think about what distinguishes a book that is likely to help most of its readers from a book that isn’t.

It is possible to think about these matters. Gurdon, in her attempt to distinguish between books that treat hard, painful, and ugly issues in helpful ways from those that treat them in callous and thoughtless ways, is at least trying to do some serious thinking. I haven't seen that yet from the writers who are responding to her. If you’ve seen more serious responses than I have, please let me know in the comments.

But you don't need to tell me that books can and do change lives for the better. I know they do. Books have had major transformative power in my own life. But some of what I've read hasn't been good for me, and more than a few times that happened because the people who wrote it meant me no good. Writers are as fallen and as broken as anyone else, and so, therefore, are their books.

advice for writers (2)

While I’m being negative about the advice that some writers give: I also think some of the writers consulted are giving universal advice based on the experience of writing one or two books. I’ve written not just several books but several kinds of book, and in my judgment they all called for different approaches. In some cases I have sought feedback early, in some cases only late in the game. I've used different tools for collecting and organizing research. A model of research, and the organizing of one’s research, that works perfectly for one project might not work at all for another. I would counsel flexibility in these matters.

What other advice would I give?

1) Don't shirk the planning. Make a detailed outline of how you think the book should go — then make another, different one. Then one more. Always be aware that there’s more than one way to tell the story you need to tell. Be ready to move things around; think in modular terms.

2) Thinking in modular terms also helps you to break down the task into manageable component parts. “Writing a book” sounds intimidating, but a book is just the collective product of many days of writing a few dozen, or a few hundred, words. Dividing the project up into chunks allows you to have achievable goals. And anyway, it’s only once you have made all the modules and thought about them for a while that you can see how they fit together.

3) Every writer says this, but that’s because it’s true: write every day, emphasizing quantity rather than quality. You have to be willing to write stuff that you know isn't any good, because you know that once you have crappy stuff out there you can turn it into better stuff. So just write. Consider: if you write roughly a page a day, even taking vacations and weekends off, you’ll have around 300 pages at the end of a year.

4) I think it’s generally agreed, by Those Who Know, that one of the best tools ever created for writers is Scrivener. And indeed, Scrivener is awesome. But no software or hardware tool is going to write your book for you, so don't get too emotionally invested in such things, and don't expect more than an application can deliver. The more important thing is to make sure that, whatever tool you use, you know its capabilities inside and out. Intimate knowledge of your software enables you to get the most out of it.

I haven't switched to Scrivener, though I admire it, largely because I am absolutely devoted to the text editor BBEdit, which allows me to create Projects from multiple files, do search-and-replace across multiple files, “fold” sections of text, view in split screens, and so on and so on. I know this app thoroughly, which makes my use of it pretty seamless — and that’s what you want from any writing tool: for it to be as invisible and impalpable as possible. So whatever tools you decide to use, stick with them until you know them very well; you’re better off with a flawed or limited instrument that you can make sing than with a super-fancy one that makes your fingers stumble.

Unless you’re using Microsoft Word, of course: nothing can salvage that.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

more on curation

I'm not the only one who thinks it's not all curation. And don't neglect this post.

advice for writers (1)

Say, here are “Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 22 Brilliant Authors”. Some good advice may be found there; also some ridiculous stuff. I have always been annoyed by the tendency some writers have to make writing a book sound like hard labor in Siberia. Thus an anonymous “author of notable books on science and psychology”:

[I didn’t know] how hard writing a book would be on my body — two major illnesses and two surgeries in two years, a health record unprecedented in my life, and unrepeated in the two years since. No idea what to do differently, other than maybe make sure I have good health insurance. (But you shoulda seen me revising my last draft as they wheeled me into the OR for an appendectomy.)

You think writing a book caused your appendicitis? Seriously? Or Joshua Wolf Shenk: “Writing a book is a crushingly lonely experience in ways that no one who hasn’t been through it can really imagine.” Give me a break. Many millions of people have jobs that require them to work alone, and at the end of the day they go home to family, or out for a beer with friends, without turning it into a serial melodrama. Writers can do the same.

Why do writers say stuff like this? Writing is hard work — it’s damned hard work if you want to do it well, and there is much truth in Thomas Mann's comment that a writer is someone who finds writing harder than other people do — but it’s not some uniquely gruesome or debilitating grind. If you find writing that horrifying you should probably do something else. But I think writers know that people envy them (there are countless would-be writers out there) so they project this blood-sweat-and-tears image as a way of deflecting the envy. And, probably, simultaneously sending the message, “I am one of the few with the sheer will and stamina to hold up under the oppressive weight of it all.”

Maybe I’m being too hard on people. At times over the years I’ve also had to insist on how difficult it is to write books: non-writers don't see the work that goes into it, and some of them assume that it’s just a matter of sitting down and typing until you’re done. (I can barely count the number of people who have told me, "Well, it comes easily to you.") But you can say it’s hard work without claiming that to write is to court personal destruction.

More on “advice for writers” in another post.

Monday, June 6, 2011


I like the suggestion here:

Two months into 2011, The New York Times tech reporter (and former Wired reporter Jenna Wortham) wrote excitedly that she had finally finished her first e-book — how is such technological tardiness possible for someone so plugged in? Wortham had an excellent explanation: She kept forgetting to pick up any e-book she had started reading. It took the solemn determination of a New Year’s resolution to break that spell.

E-books don’t exist in your peripheral vision. They do not taunt you to finish what you started. They do not serve as constant, embarrassing reminders to your poor reading habits. Even 1,001 digital books are out of sight, and thus out of mind. A possible solution? Notifications that pop up to remind you that you’ve been on page 47 of A Shore Thing for 17 days.

I’m not sure about this, but it feels like I start-and-fail-to-finish more e-books than paper books.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

my D.C. visit, storified

In an earlier post I used Storify to present a Twitter conversation. But I’m a piker at storification in comparison to my friend Tim Carmody, who transformed my recent visit to D.C. — and my first meeting with him — into a work of art. Check it out.

I am very grateful to my friends at The New Atlantis — Adam Keiper, Caitrin Nicol, Ari Schulman, and Barrett Bowdre — for making my visit an exceptionally enjoyable one. And also to Oxford University Press for putting me up in a really funky hotel with leopard- and zebra-print robes.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Interesting to see both Jonathan Franzen and David Brooks speaking to and about college graduates in ways that suggest an attempt to channel David Foster Wallace’s great Kenyon commencement speech — Brooks in substance only, Franzen in substance and tone alike.

Neither of them work very well. Brooks’s essay, while thoughtful and even wise, comes off as a bit hectoring; Franzen just seems self-absorbed. Ancient rhetorical theory — Aristotle’s On Rhetoric, for example — said that a speaker may persuade by the employment of logos (reasoning), pathos (emotional appeal), and ethos (his or her own personal character). Of the three, ethos is the most mysterious and the least teachable. Wallace had an extraordinary ability, in his written prose but also perhaps in his speech, to be passionately earnest in ways that make people sit up and pay attention — to feel almost cared for, as though words from this person addressed to them are honoring them somehow. It’s hard to explain. But Wallace had it (has it) and Brooks and Franzen don’t.

A commencement speech is an utterly false thing, in that no one is really there to hear a speech: I’m sure Wallace’s address at Kenyon had little or no impact on the vast majority of those who heard it when it was delivered. But here are a few thoughts from Kenyon graduates in the class to whom Wallace spoke. My suspicion is that some of these comments would have been quite different if they had been asked about the speech before it became famous, but I especially like this one: “The one emotion I remember is intensity: he was clear, driving, and inwardly focused. He also didn’t say anything dismissively. Whether it was his technique or his real feeling I have no idea, but he read the speech like he was passing on a message of importance. Sitting here, I picture a guy at a radio in a bunker intercepting a message, then reading it off to someone else, wasting no time and enunciating every syllable.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Google good and bad

People who have been using a Mac for a long time can find Google Chrome painful to look at. Some of the reasons for that are outlined in this post by Majd Taby, but there are others. There’s a general lack of fit and finish: for instance, if you have folders in your bookmark bar in Chrome, click on one of them; then do the same in Safari. The drop-down menu in Chrome is as bare-bones as it gets: there’s a general close-enough-for-government-work feel to Chrome’s whole UI.

But beneath the hood? Within a few minutes of reading Taby’s post I read this one by Farhad Manjoo, which explains how Google implemented automatic updating of Chrome in the background. No “Do you want to install this update?” dialogue boxes. It just works. Manjoo writes,

Chrome's painless update process is the product of a lot of sophisticated software engineering. Rather than reinstalling the whole program, Chrome's designers have figured out a way to update the ones and zeroes in the program on your computer just where it has changed. This approach dramatically reduces the size of the files they send to your computer during an update. "It is an anathema to us to push out a whole new 10MB update to give you a ten-line security fix," Stephen Adams, a Chrome software engineer, wrote in 2009. Instead, the update system compares the version of Chrome you have on your computer to the new one sitting on Google's server, and then it sends you only the key differences in code. A 10-megabyte update can be reduced to a tiny, 78K download. In a recent post praising Chrome's update system, Coding Horror's Jeff Atwood argued that Chrome had "transcended" the very notion of "software versioning." Chrome updates so quickly that its version number might as well be infinity.

This is why I have increasingly been trying to leverage Google’s engineering without having to encounter Google’s butt-ugly user interfaces. And Google has done a lot of work over the past few years to make it possible for me to do this, especially by introducing a (wonky but usable) version of IMAP for Gmail and by employing Microsoft’s Exchange technology with its calendars. I can now use Google without ever having to look at Google. Best of both worlds. At least until I can escape Google's clutches altogether. . . .