Category Archives: Literature

QTWTAIN: Are there Nazis living on the moon?

QTWTAIN is a Twitterspeak acronym for a Question To Which The Answer Is No.

QTWTAINs are a relatively recent journalistic phenomenon. They are often used as headlines to great effect by media organizations to grab a reader’s attention. But importantly, QTWTAINs imply that something ridiculous is true — by posing a headline as a question no evidence seems to be required. Here’s an example of a recent headline:

“Europe: Are there Nazis living on the moon?”

Author and journalist John Rentoul has done all connoisseurs of QTWTAINs a great service by collecting an outstanding selection from hundreds of his favorites into a new book, Questions to Which the Answer is No. Rentoul tells us his story, excerpted, below.

[div class=attrib]From the Independent:[end-div]

I have an unusual hobby. I collect headlines in the form of questions to which the answer is no. This is a specialist art form that has long been a staple of “prepare to be amazed” journalism. Such questions allow newspapers, television programmes and websites to imply that something preposterous is true without having to provide the evidence.

If you see a question mark after a headline, ask yourself why it is not expressed as a statement, such as “Church of England threatened by excess of cellulite” or “Revealed: Marlene Dietrich plotted to murder Hitler” or, “This penguin is a communist”.

My collection started with a bishop, a grudge against Marks & Spencer and a theft in broad daylight. The theft was carried out by me: I had been inspired by Oliver Kamm, a friend and hero of mine, who wrote about Great Historical Questions to Which the Answer is No on his blog. Then I came across this long headline in Britain’s second-best-selling newspaper three years ago: “He’s the outcast bishop who denies the Holocaust – yet has been welcomed back by the Pope. But are Bishop Williamson’s repugnant views the result of a festering grudge against Marks & Spencer?” Thus was an internet meme born.

Since then readers of The Independent blog and people on Twitter with nothing better to do have supplied me with a constant stream of QTWTAIN. If this game had a serious purpose, which it does not, it would be to make fun of conspiracy theories. After a while, a few themes recurred: flying saucers, yetis, Jesus, the murder of John F Kennedy, the death of Marilyn Monroe and reincarnation.

An enterprising PhD student could use my series as raw material for a thesis entitled: “A Typology of Popular Irrationalism in Early 21st-Century Media”. But that would be to take it too seriously. The proper use of the series is as a drinking game, to be followed by a rousing chorus of “Jerusalem”, which consists largely of questions to which the answer is no.

My only rule in compiling the series is that the author or publisher of the question has to imply that the answer is yes (“Does Nick Clegg Really Expect Us to Accept His Apology?” for example, would be ruled out of order). So far I have collected 841 of them, and the best have been selected for a book published this week. I hope you like them.

Is the Loch Ness monster on Google Earth?

Daily Telegraph, 26 August 2009

A picture of something that actually looked like a giant squid had been spotted by a security guard as he browsed the digital planet. A similar question had been asked by the Telegraph six months earlier, on 19 February, about a different picture: “Has the Loch Ness Monster emigrated to Borneo?”

Would Boudicca have been a Liberal Democrat?

This one is cheating, because Paul Richards, who asked it in an article in Progress magazine, 12 March 2010, did not imply that the answer was yes. He was actually making a point about the misuse of historical conjecture, comparing Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP, who suggested that the Levellers were early Tories, to the spiritualist interviewed by The Sun in 1992, who was asked how Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, Karl Marx and Chairman Mao would have voted (Churchill was for John Major; the rest for Neil Kinnock, naturally).

Is Tony Blair a Mossad agent?

A question asked by Peza, who appears to be a cat, on an internet forum on 9 April 2010. One reader had a good reply: “Peza, are you drinking that vodka-flavoured milk?”

Could Angelina Jolie be the first female US President?

Daily Express, 24 June 2009

An awkward one this, because one of my early QTWTAIN was “Is the Express a newspaper?” I had formulated an arbitrary rule that its headlines did not count. But what are rules for, if not for changing?

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump?[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Book Cover: Questions to Which the Answer is No, by John Rentoul. Courtesy of the Independent / John Rentoul.[end-div]

The Power of Lists

Where would you be without lists? Surely your life would be much less organized were it not for the shopping list, gift list, re-gifting list, reading list, items to fix list, resolutions list, medications list, vacation list, work action items list, spouse to-do list, movies to see list, greeting card list, gift wish list, allergies list, school supplies list, and of course the places to visit before you die list. The lists just go on an on.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

WITH school starting and vacations ending, this is the month, the season of the list. But face it. We’re living in the era of the list, maybe even its golden age. The Web click has led to the wholesale repackaging of information into lists, which can be complex and wonderful pieces of information architecture. Our technology has imperceptibly infected us with “list thinking.”

Lists are the simplest way to organize information. They are also a symptom of our short attention spans.

The crudest of online lists are galaxies of buttons, replacing real stories. “Listicles,” you might say. They are just one step beyond magazine cover lines like “37 Ways to Drive Your Man Wild in Bed.” Bucket lists have produced competitive list making online. Like competitive birders, people check off books read or travel destinations visited.

But lists can also tell a story. Even the humble shopping list says something about the shopper — and the Netflix queue, a “smart list” built on experience and suggestion algorithms, says much about the subscriber.

Lists can reveal personal dramas. An exhibit of lists at the Morgan Library and Museum showed a passive-aggressive Picasso omitting his bosom buddy, Georges Braque, from a list of recommended artists.

We’ve come a long way from the primitive best-seller lists and hit parade lists, “crowd sourced,” if you will, from sales. We all have our “to-do” lists, and there is a modern, sophisticated form of the list that is as serious as the “best of…” list is frivolous. That is the checklist.

The surgeon Atul Gawande, in his book “The Checklist Manifesto,” explains the utility of the list in assuring orderly procedures and removing error. For all that society has accomplished in such fields as medicine and aviation, he argues, the know-how is often unmanageable — without a checklist.

A 70-page checklist put together by James Lovell, the commander of Apollo 13, helped him navigate the spacecraft back to Earth after an oxygen tank exploded. Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger safely ditched his Airbus A-320 in the Hudson River after consulting the “engine out” checklist, which advised “Land ASAP” if the engines fail to restart.

At a local fast-food joint, I see checklists for cleanliness, one list for the front of the store and one for restrooms — a set of inspections and cleanups to be done every 30 minutes. The list is mapped on photo views, with numbers of the tasks over the areas in question. A checklist is a kind of story or narrative and has a long history in literature. The heroic list or catalog is a feature of epic poetry, from Homer to Milton. There is the famed catalog of ships and heroes in “The Iliad.”

Homer’s ships are also echoed in a list in Lewis Carroll’s “The Walrus and the Carpenter”: “‘The time has come,’ the walrus said, ‘to talk of many things: Of shoes — and ships — and sealing-wax — of cabbages — and kings.’” This is the prototype of the surrealist list.

There are other sorts of lists in literature. Vladimir Nabokov said he spent a long time working out the list (he called it a poem) of Lolita’s classmates in his famous novel; the names reflect the flavor of suburban America in the 1950s and give sly clues to the plot as well. There are hopeful names like Grace Angel and ominous ones like Aubrey McFate.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

The Pleasure from Writing Long Sentences

Author Pico Iver distances himself from the short bursts of broken language of the Twitterscape and the exclamatory sound-bites of our modern day lives, and revels in the lush beauty of the long and winding sentence.

[div class=attrib]From the LA Times:[end-div]

“Your sentences are so long,” said a friend who teaches English at a local college, and I could tell she didn’t quite mean it as a compliment. The copy editor who painstakingly went through my most recent book often put yellow dashes on-screen around my multiplying clauses, to ask if I didn’t want to break up my sentences or put less material in every one. Both responses couldn’t have been kinder or more considered, but what my friend and my colleague may not have sensed was this: I’m using longer and longer sentences as a small protest against — and attempt to rescue any readers I might have from — the bombardment of the moment.

When I began writing for a living, my feeling was that my job was to give the reader something vivid, quick and concrete that she couldn’t get in any other form; a writer was an information-gathering machine, I thought, and especially as a journalist, my job was to go out into the world and gather details, moments, impressions as visual and immediate as TV. Facts were what we needed most. And if you watched the world closely enough, I believed (and still do), you could begin to see what it would do next, just as you can with a sibling or a friend; Don DeLillo or Salman Rushdie aren’t mystics, but they can tell us what the world is going to do tomorrow because they follow it so attentively.

Yet nowadays the planet is moving too fast for even a Rushdie or DeLillo to keep up, and many of us in the privileged world have access to more information than we know what to do with. What we crave is something that will free us from the overcrowded moment and allow us to see it in a larger light. No writer can compete, for speed and urgency, with texts or CNN news flashes or RSS feeds, but any writer can try to give us the depth, the nuances — the “gaps,” as Annie Dillard calls them — that don’t show up on many screens. Not everyone wants to be reduced to a sound bite or a bumper sticker.

Enter (I hope) the long sentence: the collection of clauses that is so many-chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory or imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or. With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions — or that at least is the hope — and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying “Open wider” so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).

“There was a little stoop of humility,” Alan Hollinghurst writes in a sentence I’ve chosen almost at random from his recent novel “The Stranger’s Child,” “as she passed through the door, into the larger but darker library beyond, a hint of frailty, an affectation of bearing more than her fifty-nine years, a slight bewildered totter among the grandeur that her daughter now had to pretend to take for granted.” You may notice — though you don’t have to — that “humility” has rather quickly elided into “affectation,” and the point of view has shifted by the end of the sentence, and the physical movement through the rooms accompanies a gradual inner movement that progresses through four parallel clauses, each of which, though legato, suggests a slightly different take on things.

Many a reader will have no time for this; William Gass or Sir Thomas Browne may seem long-winded, the equivalent of driving from L.A. to San Francisco by way of Death Valley, Tijuana and the Sierras. And a highly skilled writer, a Hemingway or James Salter, can get plenty of shading and suggestion into even the shortest and straightest of sentences. But too often nowadays our writing is telegraphic as a way of keeping our thinking simplistic, our feeling slogan-crude. The short sentence is the domain of uninflected talk-radio rants and shouting heads on TV who feel that qualification or subtlety is an assault on their integrity (and not, as it truly is, integrity’s greatest adornment).

If we continue along this road, whole areas of feeling and cognition and experience will be lost to us. We will not be able to read one another very well if we can’t read Proust’s labyrinthine sentences, admitting us to those half-lighted realms where memory blurs into imagination, and we hide from the person we care for or punish the thing that we love. And how can we feel the layers, the sprawl, the many-sidedness of Istanbul in all its crowding amplitude without the 700-word sentence, transcribing its features, that Orhan Pamuk offered in tribute to his lifelong love?

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

Shirking Life-As-Performance of a Social Network

Ex-Facebook employee number 51, gives us a glimpse from within the social network giant. It’s a tale of social isolation, shallow relationships, voyeurism, and narcissistic performance art. It’s also a tale of the re-discovery of life prior to “likes”, “status updates”, “tweets” and “followers”.

[div class=attrib]From the Washington Post:[end-div]

Not long after Katherine Losse left her Silicon Valley career and moved to this West Texas town for its artsy vibe and crisp desert air, she decided to make friends the old-fashioned way, in person. So she went to her Facebook page and, with a series of keystrokes, shut it off.

The move carried extra import because Losse had been the social network’s 51st employee and rose to become founder Mark Zuckerberg’s personal ghostwriter. But Losse gradually soured on the revolution in human relations she witnessed from within.

The explosion of social media, she believed, left hundreds of millions of users with connections that were more plentiful but also narrower and less satisfying, with intimacy losing out to efficiency. It was time, Losse thought, for people to renegotiate their relationships with technology.

“It’s okay to feel weird about this because I feel weird about this, and I was in the center of it,” said Losse, 36, who has long, dark hair and sky-blue eyes. “We all know there is an anxiety, there’s an unease, there’s a worry that our lives are changing.”

Her response was to quit her job — something made easier by the vested stock she cashed in — and to embrace the ancient toil of writing something in her own words, at book length, about her experiences and the philosophical questions they inspired.

That brought her to Marfa, a town of 2,000 people in an area so remote that astronomers long have come here for its famously dark night sky, beyond the light pollution that’s a byproduct of modern life.

Losse’s mission was oddly parallel. She wanted to live, at least for a time, as far as practical from the world’s relentless digital glow.

Losse was a graduate student in English at Johns Hopkins University in 2004 when Facebook began its spread, first at Harvard, then other elite schools and beyond. It provided a digital commons, a way of sharing personal lives that to her felt safer than the rest of the Internet.

The mix has proved powerful. More than 900 million people have joined; if they were citizens of a single country, Facebook Nation would be the world’s third largest.

At first, Losse was among those smitten. In 2005, after moving to Northern California in search of work, she responded to a query on the Facebook home page seeking résumés. Losse soon became one of the company’s first customer-service reps, replying to questions from users and helping to police abuses.

She was firmly on the wrong side of the Silicon Valley divide, which prizes the (mostly male) engineers over those, like Losse, with liberal arts degrees. Yet she had the sense of being on the ground floor of something exciting that might also yield a life-altering financial jackpot.

In her first days, she was given a master password that she said allowed her to see any information users typed into their Facebook pages. She could go into pages to fix technical problems and police content. Losse recounted sparring with a user who created a succession of pages devoted to anti-gay messages and imagery. In one exchange, she noticed the man’s password, “Ilovejason,” and was startled by the painful irony.

Another time, Losse cringed when she learned that a team of Facebook engineers was developing what they called “dark profiles” — pages for people who had not signed up for the service but who had been identified in posts by Facebook users. The dark profiles were not to be visible to ordinary users, Losse said, but if the person eventually signed up, Facebook would activate those latent links to other users.

All the world a stage

Losse’s unease sharpened when a celebrated Facebook engineer was developing the capacity for users to upload video to their pages. He started videotaping friends, including Losse, almost compulsively. On one road trip together, the engineer made a video of her napping in a car and uploaded it remotely to an internal Facebook page. Comments noting her siesta soon began appearing — only moments after it happened.

“The day before, I could just be in a car being in a car. Now my being in a car is a performance that is visible to everyone,” Losse said, exasperation creeping into her voice. “It’s almost like there is no middle of nowhere anymore.”

Losse began comparing Facebook to the iconic 1976 Eagles song “Hotel California,” with its haunting coda, “You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave.” She put a copy of the record jacket on prominent display in a house she and several other employees shared not far from the headquarters (then in Palo Alto., Calif.; it’s now in Menlo Park).

As Facebook grew, Losse’s career blossomed. She helped introduce Facebook to new countries, pushing for quick, clean translations into new languages. Later, she moved to the heart of the company as Zuckerberg’s ghostwriter, mimicking his upbeat yet efficient style of communicating in blog posts he issued.

But her concerns continue to grow. When Zuckerberg, apparently sensing this, said to Losse, “I don’t know if I trust you,” she decided she needed to either be entirely committed to Facebook or leave. She soon sold some of her vested stock. She won’t say how much; they provided enough of a financial boon for her to go a couple of years without a salary, though not enough to stop working altogether, as some former colleagues have.

‘Touchy, private territory’

Among Losse’s concerns were the vast amount of personal data Facebook gathers. “They are playing on very touchy, private territory. They really are,” she said. “To not be conscious of that seems really dangerous.”

It wasn’t just Facebook. Losse developed a skepticism for many social technologies and the trade-offs they require.

Facebook and some others have portrayed proliferating digital connections as inherently good, bringing a sprawling world closer together and easing personal isolation.

Moira Burke, a researcher who trained at the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and has since joined Facebook’s Data Team, tracked the moods of 1,200 volunteer users. She found that simply scanning the postings of others had little effect on well-being; actively participating in exchanges with friends, however, relieved loneliness.

Summing up her findings, she wrote on Facebook’s official blog, “The more people use Facebook, the better they feel.”

But Losse’s concerns about online socializing tracks with the findings of Sherry Turkle, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist who says users of social media have little understanding of the personal information they are giving away. Nor, she said, do many understand the potentially distorting consequences when they put their lives on public display, as what amounts to an ongoing performance on social media.

“In our online lives, we edit, we retouch, we clean up,” said Turkle, author of “Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other,” published in 2011. “We substitute what I call ‘connection for real conversation.’?”

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: The Boy Kings by Katherine Losse.[end-div]

Fifty Shades of Grey Matter: Now For Some Really Influential Books

While pop culture columnists, behavioral psychologists and literary gadflies debate the pros and cons of “Fifty Shades of Grey”, we look at some more notable, though perhaps no-less controversial works, in their time. Notable in the sense that ideas from any of these books — whether you are in agreement with them or not — have had a profound influence of our cultural, political, economic and scientific evolution.

Yet while all combined have come nowhere close to the 1 million-plus sales in just over 10 weeks, with 20 million in sales so far, of the sado-masochistic pulp fiction, they do offer an enlightening counter-balance. So, if you need some fleeting titillation by all means loan “Fifty Shades…” from a friend or neighbor — why buy one, everybody else has one already. But then, go to your local bookstore or click to Amazon and purchase a handful from this list spanning 30 centuries —  you will be reminded of our ongoing, if sometimes limited, intellectual progress as a species.

1    I Ching, Chinese classic texts
2    Hebrew Bible, Jewish scripture
3    Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer
4    Upanishads, Hindu scripture
5    The Way and Its Power, Lao-tzu
6    The Avesta, Zoroastrian scripture
7    Analects, Confucius
8    History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides
9    Works, Hippocrates
10    Works, Aristotle
11    History, Herodotus
12    The Republic, Plato
13    Elements, Euclid
14    Dhammapada, Theravada Buddhist scripture
15    Aeneid, Virgil
16    On the Nature of Reality, Lucretius
17    Allegorical Expositions of the Holy Laws, Philo of Alexandria
18    New Testament, Christian scripture
19    Parallel Lives, Plutarch
20    Annals, from the Death of the Divine Augustus, Cornelius Tacitus
21    Gospel of Truth, Valentinus
22    Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
23    Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Sextus Empiricus
24    Enneads, Plotinus
25    Confessions, Augustine of Hippo
26    Koran, Muslim scripture
27    Guide for the Perplexed, Moses Maimonides
28    Kabbalah, Text of Judaic mysticism
29    Summa Theologicae, Thomas Aquinas
30    The Divine Comedy, Dante Alighieri
31    In Praise of Folly, Desiderius Erasmus
32    The Prince, Niccolò Machiavelli
33    On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Martin Luther
34    Gargantua and Pantagruel, François Rabelais
35    Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin
36    On the Revolution of the Celestial Orbs, Nicolaus Copernicus
37    Essays, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne
38    Don Quixote, Parts I and II, Miguel de Cervantes
39    The Harmony of the World, Johannes Kepler
40    Novum Organum, Francis Bacon
41    The First Folio [Works], William Shakespeare
42    Dialogue Concerning Two New Chief World Systems, Galileo Galilei
43    Discourse on Method, René Descartes
44    Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes
45    Works, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz
46    Pensées, Blaise Pascal
47    Ethics, Baruch de Spinoza
48    Pilgrim’s Progress, John Bunyan
49    Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Isaac Newton
50    Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke
51    The Principles of Human Knowledge, George Berkeley
52    The New Science, Giambattista Vico
53    A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume
54    The Encyclopedia, Denis Diderot, ed.
55    A Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson
56    Candide, François-Marie de Voltaire
57    Common Sense, Thomas Paine
58    An Enquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith
59    The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon
60    Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant
61    Confessions, Jean-Jacques Rousseau
62    Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke
63    Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft
64    An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, William Godwin
65    An Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Robert Malthus
66    Phenomenology of Spirit, George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
67    The World as Will and Idea, Arthur Schopenhauer
68    Course in the Positivist Philosophy, Auguste Comte
69    On War, Carl Marie von Clausewitz
70    Either/Or, Søren Kierkegaard
71    Manifesto of the Communist Party, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
72    “Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau
73    The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin
74    On Liberty, John Stuart Mill
75    First Principles, Herbert Spencer
76    Experiments on Plant Hybridization, Gregor Mendel
77    War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
78    Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism, James Clerk Maxwell
79    Thus Spake Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche
80    The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud
81    Pragmatism, William James
82    Relativity, Albert Einstein
83    The Mind and Society, Vilfredo Pareto
84    Psychological Types, Carl Gustav Jung
85    I and Thou, Martin Buber
86    The Trial, Franz Kafka
87    The Logic of Scientific Discovery, Karl Popper
88    The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, John Maynard Keynes
89    Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre
90    The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich von Hayek
91    The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
92    Cybernetics, Norbert Wiener
93    Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
94    Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff
95    Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein
96    Syntactic Structures, Noam Chomsky
97    The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, T. S. Kuhn
98    The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan
99    Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung [The Little Red Book], Mao Zedong
100    Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B. F. Skinner

The well-rounded list featuring critically acclaimed novels, poetic masterpieces, scientific first principals, political and religious works was compiled by Martin Seymour-Smith, in his 1998 book, The 100 Most Influential Books Ever Written: The History of Thought from Ancient Times to Today. Seymour-Smith is a British poet, critic, and biographer.

[div class=attrib]Image: “On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres” by Nicolaus Copernicus, 1543.[end-div]

Happy Birthday, George Orwell

Eric Blair was born on this day, June 25, in 1903. Thirty years later Blair changed his name with the publication of his first book, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933). His preferred pen name, George Orwell, chosen for being “a good round English name” (in his words).

Your friendly editor at theDiagonal classes George Orwell as one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century. His numerous political writings, literary reviews, poems, newspaper columns and 7 novels should be compulsory reading for minds young and old. His furious intellectual honesty, keen eye for exposing hypocrisy and skepticism of power add further considerable weight to his literary legacy.

In 1946, two years before publication of one of the most important works of the 20th century, 1984, Orwell wrote a passage that summarizes his world view and rings ever true today:

Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.  (Politics and the English Language, 1946).

[div class=attrib]Image: Photograph of George Orwell which appears in an old acreditation for the Branch of the National Union of Journalists (BNUJ), 1933. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]

Thirty Books for the Under 30

The official start of summer in the northern hemisphere is just over a week away. So, it’s time to gather together some juicy reads for lazy days by the beach or under a sturdy shade tree. Flavorwire offers a classic list of 30 reads with a couple of surprises thrown in. And, we’ll qualify Flavorwire’s selection by adding that anyone over 30 should read these works as well.

[div class=attrib]From Flavorwire:[end-div]

Earlier this week, we stumbled across a list over at Divine Caroline of thirty books everyone should read before they’re thirty. While we totally agreed with some of the picks, we thought there were some essential reads missing, so we decided to put together a list of our own. We stuck to fiction for simplicity’s sake, and chose the books below on a variety of criteria, selecting enduring classics that have been informing new literature since their first printing, stories that speak specifically or most powerfully to younger readers, and books we simply couldn’t imagine reaching thirty without having read. Of course, we hope that you read more than thirty books by the time you hit your fourth decade, so this list is incomplete — but we had to stop somewhere. Click through to read the books we think everyone should read before their thirtieth birthday, and let us know which ones you would add in the comments.

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

Eugenides’s family epic of love, belonging and otherness is a must read for anyone who has ever had a family or felt like an outcast. So that’s pretty much everyone, we’d wager.

Ghost World, Daniel Clowes

Clowes writes some of the most essentially realistic teenagers we’ve ever come across, which is important when you are (or have ever been) a realistic teenager yourself.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

Kerouac’s famous scroll must be read when it’s still likely to inspire exploration. Plus, then you’ll have ample time to develop your scorn towards it.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

A seminal work in both African American and women’s literature — not to mention a riveting, electrifying and deeply moving read.

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s hilarious, satirical fourth novel that earned him a Master’s in anthropology from the University of Chicago.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway

Think of him what you will, but everyone should read at least one Hemingway novel. In our experience, this one gets better the more you think about it, so we recommend reading it as early as possible.

The Road, Cormac McCarthy

The modern classic of post-apocalyptic novels, it’s also one of the best in a genre that’s only going to keep on exploding.

Maus, Art Spiegelman

A more perfect and affecting Holocaust book has never been written. And this one has pictures.

Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card

One of the best science fiction novels of all time, recommended even for staunch realists. Serious, complicated and impossible to put down. Plus, Card’s masterpiece trusts in the power of children, something we all need to be reminded of once in a while.

Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen

Yes, even for guys.

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides

Eugenides’s family epic of love, belonging and otherness is a must read for anyone who has ever had a family or felt like an outcast. So that’s pretty much everyone, we’d wager.

Ghost World, Daniel Clowes

Clowes writes some of the most essentially realistic teenagers we’ve ever come across, which is important when you are (or have ever been) a realistic teenager yourself.

On the Road, Jack Kerouac

Kerouac’s famous scroll must be read when it’s still likely to inspire exploration. Plus, then you’ll have ample time to develop your scorn towards it.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston

A seminal work in both African American and women’s literature — not to mention a riveting, electrifying and deeply moving read.

Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut’s hilarious, satirical fourth novel that earned him a Master’s in anthropology from the University of Chicago.

[div class=attrib]Check out the entire list after the jump.[end-div]

Ray Bradbury’s Real World Dystopia

Ray Bradbury’s death on June 5 reminds us of his uncanny gift for inventing a future that is much like our modern day reality.

Bradbury’s body of work beginning in the early 1940s introduced us to ATMs, wall mounted flat screen TVs, ear-piece radios, online social networks, self-driving cars, and electronic surveillance. Bravely and presciently he also warned us of technologically induced cultural amnesia, social isolation, indifference to violence, and dumbed-down 24/7 mass media.

An especially thoughtful opinion from author Tim Kreider on Bradbury’s life as a “misanthropic humanist”.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

IF you’d wanted to know which way the world was headed in the mid-20th century, you wouldn’t have found much indication in any of the day’s literary prizewinners. You’d have been better advised to consult a book from a marginal genre with a cover illustration of a stricken figure made of newsprint catching fire.

Prescience is not the measure of a science-fiction author’s success — we don’t value the work of H. G. Wells because he foresaw the atomic bomb or Arthur C. Clarke for inventing the communications satellite — but it is worth pausing, on the occasion of Ray Bradbury’s death, to notice how uncannily accurate was his vision of the numb, cruel future we now inhabit.

Mr. Bradbury’s most famous novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” features wall-size television screens that are the centerpieces of “parlors” where people spend their evenings watching interactive soaps and vicious slapstick, live police chases and true-crime dramatizations that invite viewers to help catch the criminals. People wear “seashell” transistor radios that fit into their ears. Note the perversion of quaint terms like “parlor” and “seashell,” harking back to bygone days and vanished places, where people might visit with their neighbors or listen for the sound of the sea in a chambered nautilus.

Mr. Bradbury didn’t just extrapolate the evolution of gadgetry; he foresaw how it would stunt and deform our psyches. “It’s easy to say the wrong thing on telephones; the telephone changes your meaning on you,” says the protagonist of the prophetic short story “The Murderer.” “First thing you know, you’ve made an enemy.”

Anyone who’s had his intended tone flattened out or irony deleted by e-mail and had to explain himself knows what he means. The character complains that he’s relentlessly pestered with calls from friends and employers, salesmen and pollsters, people calling simply because they can. Mr. Bradbury’s vision of “tired commuters with their wrist radios, talking to their wives, saying, ‘Now I’m at Forty-third, now I’m at Forty-fourth, here I am at Forty-ninth, now turning at Sixty-first” has gone from science-fiction satire to dreary realism.

“It was all so enchanting at first,” muses our protagonist. “They were almost toys, to be played with, but the people got too involved, went too far, and got wrapped up in a pattern of social behavior and couldn’t get out, couldn’t admit they were in, even.”

Most of all, Mr. Bradbury knew how the future would feel: louder, faster, stupider, meaner, increasingly inane and violent. Collective cultural amnesia, anhedonia, isolation. The hysterical censoriousness of political correctness. Teenagers killing one another for kicks. Grown-ups reading comic books. A postliterate populace. “I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths,” says the fire captain in “Fahrenheit,” written in 1953. “No one wanted them back. No one missed them.” Civilization drowned out and obliterated by electronic chatter. The book’s protagonist, Guy Montag, secretly trying to memorize the Book of Ecclesiastes on a train, finally leaps up screaming, maddened by an incessant jingle for “Denham’s Dentrifice.” A man is arrested for walking on a residential street. Everyone locked indoors at night, immersed in the social lives of imaginary friends and families on TV, while the government bombs someone on the other side of the planet. Does any of this sound familiar?

The hero of “The Murderer” finally goes on a rampage and smashes all the yammering, blatting devices around him, expressing remorse only over the Insinkerator — “a practical device indeed,” he mourns, “which never said a word.” It’s often been remarked that for a science-fiction writer, Mr. Bradbury was something of a Luddite — anti-technology, anti-modern, even anti-intellectual. (“Put me in a room with a pad and a pencil and set me up against a hundred people with a hundred computers,” he challenged a Wired magazine interviewer, and swore he would “outcreate” every one.)

But it was more complicated than that; his objections were not so much reactionary or political as they were aesthetic. He hated ugliness, noise and vulgarity. He opposed the kind of technology that deadened imagination, the modernity that would trash the past, the kind of intellectualism that tried to centrifuge out awe and beauty. He famously did not care to drive or fly, but he was a passionate proponent of space travel, not because of its practical benefits but because he saw it as the great spiritual endeavor of the age, our generation’s cathedral building, a bid for immortality among the stars.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Technorati.[end-div]

MondayPoem: McDonalds Is Impossible

According to Chelsea Martin’s website, “chelsea martin ‘studied’ art and writing at california college of the arts (though she holds no degree because she owes $300 in tuition)”.

[div]From Poetry Foundation:[end-div]

Chelsea Martin was 23 when she published her first collection, Everything Was Fine until Whatever (2009), a genre-blurring book of short fiction, nonfiction, prose, poetry, sketches, and memoir. She is also the author, most recently, of The Real Funny Thing about Apathy (2010).

By Chelsea Martin

– McDonalds is Impossible

Eating food from McDonald’s is mathematically impossible.
Because before you can eat it, you have to order it.
And before you can order it, you have to decide what you want.
And before you can decide what you want, you have to read the menu.
And before you can read the menu, you have to be in front of the menu.
And before you can be in front of the menu, you have to wait in line.
And before you can wait in line, you have to drive to the restaurant.
And before you can drive to the restaurant, you have to get in your car.
And before you can get in your car, you have to put clothes on.
And before you can put clothes on, you have to get out of bed.
And before you can get out of bed, you have to stop being so depressed.
And before you can stop being so depressed, you have to understand what depression is.
And before you can understand what depression is, you have to think clearly.
And before you can think clearly, you have to turn off the TV.
And before you can turn off the TV, you have to free your hands.
And before you can free your hands, you have to stop masturbating.
And before you can stop masturbating, you have to get off.
And before you can get off, you have to imagine someone you really like with his pants off, encouraging you to explore his enlarged genitalia.
And before you can imagine someone you really like with his pants off encouraging you to explore his enlarged genitalia, you have to imagine that person stroking your neck.
And before you can imagine that person stroking your neck, you have to imagine that person walking up to you looking determined.
And before you can imagine that person walking up to you looking determined, you have to choose who that person is.
And before you can choose who that person is, you have to like someone.
And before you can like someone, you have to interact with someone.
And before you can interact with someone, you have to introduce yourself.
And before you can introduce yourself, you have to be in a social situation.
And before you can be in a social situation, you have to be invited to something somehow.
And before you can be invited to something somehow, you have to receive a telephone call from a friend.
And before you can receive a telephone call from a friend, you have to make a reputation for yourself as being sort of fun.
And before you can make a reputation for yourself as being sort of fun, you have to be noticeably fun on several different occasions.
And before you can be noticeably fun on several different occasions, you have to be fun once in the presence of two or more people.
And before you can be fun once in the presence of two or more people, you have to be drunk.
And before you can be drunk, you have to buy alcohol.
And before you can buy alcohol, you have to want your psychological state to be altered.
And before you can want your psychological state to be altered, you have to recognize that your current psychological state is unsatisfactory.
And before you can recognize that your current psychological state is unsatisfactory, you have to grow tired of your lifestyle.
And before you can grow tired of your lifestyle, you have to repeat the same patterns over and over endlessly.
And before you can repeat the same patterns over and over endlessly, you have to lose a lot of your creativity.
And before you can lose a lot of your creativity, you have to stop reading books.
And before you can stop reading books, you have to think that you would benefit from reading less frequently.
And before you can think that you would benefit from reading less frequently, you have to be discouraged by the written word.
And before you can be discouraged by the written word, you have to read something that reinforces your insecurities.
And before you can read something that reinforces your insecurities, you have to have insecurities.
And before you can have insecurities, you have to be awake for part of the day.
And before you can be awake for part of the day, you have to feel motivation to wake up.
And before you can feel motivation to wake up, you have to dream of perfectly synchronized conversations with people you desire to talk to.
And before you can dream of perfectly synchronized conversations with people you desire to talk to, you have to have a general idea of what a perfectly synchronized conversation is.
And before you can have a general idea of what a perfectly synchronized conversation is, you have to watch a lot of movies in which people successfully talk to each other.
And before you can watch a lot of movies in which people successfully talk to each other, you have to have an interest in other people.
And before you can have an interest in other people, you have to have some way of benefiting from other people.
And before you can have some way of benefiting from other people, you have to have goals.
And before you can have goals, you have to want power.
And before you can want power, you have to feel greed.
And before you can feel greed, you have to feel more deserving than others.
And before you can feel more deserving than others, you have to feel a general disgust with the human population.
And before you can feel a general disgust with the human population, you have to be emotionally wounded.
And before you can be emotionally wounded, you have to be treated badly by someone you think you care about while in a naive, vulnerable state.
And before you can be treated badly by someone you think you care about while in a naive, vulnerable state, you have to feel inferior to that person.
And before you can feel inferior to that person, you have to watch him laughing and walking towards his drum kit with his shirt off and the sun all over him.
And before you can watch him laughing and walking towards his drum kit with his shirt off and the sun all over him, you have to go to one of his outdoor shows.
And before you can go to one of his outdoor shows, you have to pretend to know something about music.
And before you can pretend to know something about music, you have to feel embarrassed about your real interests.
And before you can feel embarrassed about your real interests, you have to realize that your interests are different from other people’s interests.
And before you can realize that your interests are different from other people’s interests, you have to be regularly misunderstood.
And before you can be regularly misunderstood, you have to be almost completely socially debilitated.
And before you can be almost completely socially debilitated, you have to be an outcast.
And before you can be an outcast, you have to be rejected by your entire group of friends.
And before you can be rejected by your entire group of friends, you have to be suffocatingly loyal to your friends.
And before you can be suffocatingly loyal to your friends, you have to be afraid of loss.
And before you can be afraid of loss, you have to lose something of value.
And before you can lose something of value, you have to realize that that thing will never change.
And before you can realize that that thing will never change, you have to have the same conversation with your grandmother forty or fifty times.
And before you can have the same conversation with your grandmother forty or fifty times, you have to have a desire to talk to her and form a meaningful relationship.
And before you can have a desire to talk to her and form a meaningful relationship, you have to love her.
And before you can love her, you have to notice the great tolerance she has for you.
And before you can notice the great tolerance she has for you, you have to break one of her favorite china teacups that her mother gave her and forget to apologize.
And before you can break one of her favorite china teacups that her mother gave her and forget to apologize, you have to insist on using the teacups for your imaginary tea party. And before you can insist on using the teacups for your imaginary tea party, you have to cultivate your imagination.
And before you can cultivate your imagination, you have to spend a lot of time alone.
And before you can spend a lot of time alone, you have to find ways to sneak away from your siblings.
And before you can find ways to sneak away from your siblings, you have to have siblings.
And before you can have siblings, you have to underwhelm your parents.
And before you can underwhelm your parents, you have to be quiet, polite and unnoticeable.
And before you can be quiet, polite and unnoticeable, you have to understand that it is possible to disappoint your parents.
And before you can understand that it is possible to disappoint your parents, you have to be harshly reprimanded.
And before you can be harshly reprimanded, you have to sing loudly at an inappropriate moment.
And before you can sing loudly at an inappropriate moment, you have to be happy.
And before you can be happy, you have to be able to recognize happiness.
And before you can be able to recognize happiness, you have to know distress.
And before you can know distress, you have to be watched by an insufficient babysitter for one week.
And before you can be watched by an insufficient babysitter for one week, you have to vomit on the other, more pleasant babysitter.
And before you can vomit on the other, more pleasant babysitter, you have to be sick.
And before you can be sick, you have to eat something you’re allergic to.
And before you can eat something you’re allergic to, you have to have allergies.
And before you can have allergies, you have to be born.
And before you can be born, you have to be conceived.
And before you can be conceived, your parents have to copulate.
And before your parents can copulate, they have to be attracted to one another.
And before they can be attracted to one another, they have to have common interests.
And before they can have common interests, they have to talk to each other.
And before they can talk to each other, they have to meet.
And before they can meet, they have to have in-school suspension on the same day.
And before they can have in-school suspension on the same day, they have to get caught sneaking off campus separately.
And before they can get caught sneaking off campus separately, they have to think of somewhere to go.
And before they can think of somewhere to go, they have to be familiar with McDonald’s.
And before they can be familiar with McDonald’s, they have to eat food from McDonald’s.
And eating food from McDonald’s is mathematically impossible.

Ray Bradbury – His Books Will Not Burn

“Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn ’em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That’s our official slogan.” [From Fahrenheit 451].

Ray Bradbury left our planet on June 5. He was 91 years old.

Yet, a part of him lives on Mars. A digital copy of Bradbury’s “The Martian Chronicles”, along with works by other science fiction authors, reached the Martian northern plains in 2008, courtesy of NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander spacecraft.

Ray Bradbury is likely to be best-remembered for his seminal science fiction work, Fahrenheit 451. The literary community will remember him as one of the world’s preeminent authors of short-stories and novellas. In fact, he also wrote plays, screenplays, children’s books and works of literary criticism. Many of his over 400 works, dating from the 1950’s to the present day, have greatly influenced contemporary writers and artists. He had a supreme gift for melding poetry with prose, dark vision with humor and social commentary with imagined worlds. Bradbury received the U.S. National Medal of Arts in 2004.

He will be missed; his books will not burn.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

By many estimations Mr. Bradbury was the writer most responsible for bringing modern science fiction into the literary mainstream. His name would appear near the top of any list of major science-fiction writers of the 20th century, beside those of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert A. Heinlein and the Polish author Stanislaw Lem. His books have been taught in schools and colleges, where many a reader has been introduced to them decades after they first appeared. Many have said his stories fired their own imaginations.

More than eight million copies of his books have been sold in 36 languages. They include the short-story collections “The Martian Chronicles,” “The Illustrated Man” and “The Golden Apples of the Sun,” and the novels “Fahrenheit 451” and “Something Wicked This Way Comes.”

Though none won a Pulitzer Prize, Mr. Bradbury received a Pulitzer citation in 2007 “for his distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy.”

His writing career stretched across 70 years, to the last weeks of his life. The New Yorker published an autobiographical essay by him in its June 4th double issue devoted to science fiction. There he recalled his “hungry imagination” as a boy in Illinois.

“It was one frenzy after one elation after one enthusiasm after one hysteria after another,” he wrote, noting, “You rarely have such fevers later in life that fill your entire day with emotion.”

Mr. Bradbury sold his first story to a magazine called Super Science Stories in his early 20s. By 30 he had made his reputation with “The Martian Chronicles,” a collection of thematically linked stories published in 1950.

The book celebrated the romance of space travel while condemning the social abuses that modern technology had made possible, and its impact was immediate and lasting. Critics who had dismissed science fiction as adolescent prattle praised “Chronicles” as stylishly written morality tales set in a future that seemed just around the corner.

Mr. Bradbury was hardly the first writer to represent science and technology as a mixed bag of blessings and abominations. The advent of the atomic bomb in 1945 left many Americans deeply ambivalent toward science. The same “super science” that had ended World War II now appeared to threaten the very existence of civilization. Science-fiction writers, who were accustomed to thinking about the role of science in society, had trenchant things to say about the nuclear threat.

But the audience for science fiction, published mostly in pulp magazines, was small and insignificant. Mr. Bradbury looked to a larger audience: the readers of mass-circulation magazines like Mademoiselle and The Saturday Evening Post. These readers had no patience for the technical jargon of the science fiction pulps. So he eliminated the jargon; he packaged his troubling speculations about the future in an appealing blend of cozy colloquialisms and poetic metaphors.

Though his books, particularly “The Martian Chronicles,” became a staple of high school and college English courses, Mr. Bradbury himself disdained formal education. He went so far as to attribute his success as a writer to his never having gone to college.

Instead, he read everything he could get his hands on: Edgar Allan Poe, Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway. He paid homage to them in 1971 in the essay “How Instead of Being Educated in College, I Was Graduated From Libraries.” (Late in life he took an active role in fund-raising efforts for public libraries in Southern California.)

Mr. Bradbury referred to himself as an “idea writer,” by which he meant something quite different from erudite or scholarly. “I have fun with ideas; I play with them,” he said. “ I’m not a serious person, and I don’t like serious people. I don’t see myself as a philosopher. That’s awfully boring.”

He added, “My goal is to entertain myself and others.”

He described his method of composition as “word association,” often triggered by a favorite line of poetry.

Mr. Bradbury’s passion for books found expression in his dystopian novel “Fahrenheit 451,” published in 1953. But he drew his primary inspiration from his childhood. He boasted that he had total recall of his earliest years, including the moment of his birth. Readers had no reason to doubt him.As for the protagonists of his stories, no matter how far they journeyed from home, they learned that they could never escape the past.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Ray Bradbury, 1975. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]

Philip K. Dick – Future Gnostic

Simon Critchley, professor of philosophy, continues his serialized analysis of Philip K. Dick. Part I first appeared here. Part II examines the events around 2-3-74 that led to Dick’s 8,000 page Gnostic treatise “Exegesis”.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

In the previous post, we looked at the consequences and possible philosophic import of the events of February and March of 1974 (also known as 2-3-74) in the life and work of Philip K. Dick, a period in which a dose of sodium pentathol, a light-emitting fish pendant and decades of fiction writing and quasi-philosophic activity came together in revelation that led to Dick’s 8,000-page “Exegesis.”

So, what is the nature of the true reality that Dick claims to have intuited during psychedelic visions of 2-3-74? Does it unwind into mere structureless ranting and raving or does it suggest some tradition of thought or belief? I would argue the latter. This is where things admittedly get a little weirder in an already weird universe, so hold on tight.

In the very first lines of “Exegesis” Dick writes, “We see the Logos addressing the many living entities.” Logos is an important concept that litters the pages of “Exegesis.” It is a word with a wide variety of meaning in ancient Greek, one of which is indeed “word.” It can also mean speech, reason (in Latin, ratio) or giving an account of something. For Heraclitus, to whom Dick frequently refers, logos is the universal law that governs the cosmos of which most human beings are somnolently ignorant. Dick certainly has this latter meaning in mind, but — most important — logos refers to the opening of John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the word” (logos), where the word becomes flesh in the person of Christ.

But the core of Dick’s vision is not quite Christian in the traditional sense; it is Gnostical: it is the mystical intellection, at its highest moment a fusion with a transmundane or alien God who is identified with logos and who can communicate with human beings in the form of a ray of light or, in Dick’s case, hallucinatory visions.

There is a tension throughout “Exegesis” between a monistic view of the cosmos (where there is just one substance in the universe, which can be seen in Dick’s references to Spinoza’s idea as God as nature, Whitehead’s idea of reality as process and Hegel’s dialectic where “the true is the whole”) and a dualistic or Gnostical view of the cosmos, with two cosmic forces in conflict, one malevolent and the other benevolent. The way I read Dick, the latter view wins out. This means that the visible, phenomenal world is fallen and indeed a kind of prison cell, cage or cave.

Christianity, lest it be forgotten, is a metaphysical monism where it is the obligation of every Christian to love every aspect of creation – even the foulest and smelliest – because it is the work of God. Evil is nothing substantial because if it were it would have to be caused by God, who is by definition good. Against this, Gnosticism declares a radical dualism between the false God who created this world – who is usually called the “demiurge” – and the true God who is unknown and alien to this world. But for the Gnostic, evil is substantial and its evidence is the world. There is a story of a radical Gnostic who used to wash himself in his own saliva in order to have as little contact as possible with creation. Gnosticism is the worship of an alien God by those alienated from the world.

The novelty of Dick’s Gnosticism is that the divine is alleged to communicate with us through information. This is a persistent theme in Dick, and he refers to the universe as information and even Christ as information. Such information has a kind of electrostatic life connected to the theory of what he calls orthogonal time. The latter is rich and strange idea of time that is completely at odds with the standard, linear conception, which goes back to Aristotle, as a sequence of now-points extending from the future through the present and into the past. Dick explains orthogonal time as a circle that contains everything rather than a line both of whose ends disappear in infinity. In an arresting image, Dick claims that orthogonal time contains, “Everything which was, just as grooves on an LP contain that part of the music which has already been played; they don’t disappear after the stylus tracks them.”

It is like that seemingly endless final chord in the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” that gathers more and more momentum and musical complexity as it decays. In other words, orthogonal time permits total recall.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

Whitewashing Prejudice One Word at a Time

[div class=attrib]From Salon:[end-div]

The news of recent research documenting how readers identify with the main characters in stories has mostly been taken as confirmation of the value of literary role models. Lisa Libby, an assistant professor at Ohio State University and co-author of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, explained that subjects who read a short story in which the protagonist overcomes obstacles in order to vote were more likely to vote themselves several days later.

The suggestibility of readers isn’t news. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel of a sensitive young man destroyed by unrequited love, “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” inspired a rash of suicides by would-be Werthers in the late 1700s. Jack Kerouac has launched a thousand road trips. Still, this is part of science’s job: Running empirical tests on common knowledge — if for no other reason than because common knowledge (and common sense) is often wrong.

A far more unsettling finding is buried in this otherwise up-with-reading news item. The Ohio State researchers gave 70 heterosexual male readers stories about a college student much like themselves. In one version, the character was straight. In another, the character is described as gay early in the story. In a third version the character is gay, but this isn’t revealed until near the end. In each case, the readers’ “experience-taking” — the name these researchers have given to the act of immersing oneself in the perspective, thoughts and emotions of a story’s protagonist — was measured.

The straight readers were far more likely to take on the experience of the main character if they weren’t told until late in the story that he was different from themselves. This, too, is not so surprising. Human beings are notorious for extending more of their sympathy to people they perceive as being of their own kind. But the researchers also found that readers of the “gay-late” story showed “significantly more favorable attitudes toward homosexuals” than the other two groups of readers, and that they were less likely to attribute stereotypically gay traits, such as effeminacy, to the main character. The “gay-late” story actually reduced their biases (conscious or not) against gays, and made them more empathetic. Similar results were found when white readers were given stories about black characters to read.

What can we do with this information? If we subscribe to the idea that literature ought to improve people’s characters — and that’s the sentiment that seems to be lurking behind the study itself — then perhaps authors and publishers should be encouraged to conceal a main character’s race or sexual orientation from readers until they become invested in him or her. Who knows how much J.K. Rowling’s revelation that Albus Dumbledore is gay, announced after the publication of the final Harry Potter book, has helped to combat homophobia? (Although I confess that I find it hard to believe there were that many homophobic Potter fans in the first place.)

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

Philip K. Dick – Mystic, Epileptic, Madman, Fictionalizing Philosopher

Professor of philosophy Simon Critchley has an insightful examination (serialized) of Philip K. Dick’s writings. Philip K. Dick had a tragically short, but richly creative writing career. Since his death twenty years ago, many of his novels have profoundly influenced contemporary culture.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div]

Philip K. Dick is arguably the most influential writer of science fiction in the past half century. In his short and meteoric career, he wrote 121 short stories and 45 novels. His work was successful during his lifetime but has grown exponentially in influence since his death in 1982. Dick’s work will probably be best known through the dizzyingly successful Hollywood adaptations of his work, in movies like “Blade Runner” (based on “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”), “Total Recall,” “Minority Report,” “A Scanner Darkly” and, most recently, “The Adjustment Bureau.” Yet few people might consider Dick a thinker. This would be a mistake.

Dick’s life has long passed into legend, peppered with florid tales of madness and intoxication. There are some who consider such legend something of a diversion from the character of Dick’s literary brilliance. Jonathan Lethem writes — rightly in my view — “Dick wasn’t a legend and he wasn’t mad. He lived among us and was a genius.” Yet Dick’s life continues to obtrude massively into any assessment of his work.

Everything turns here on an event that “Dickheads” refer to with the shorthand “the golden fish.” On Feb. 20, 1974, Dick was hit with the force of an extraordinary revelation after a visit to the dentist for an impacted wisdom tooth for which he had received a dose of sodium pentothal. A young woman delivered a bottle of Darvon tablets to his apartment in Fullerton, Calif. She was wearing a necklace with the pendant of a golden fish, an ancient Christian symbol that had been adopted by the Jesus counterculture movement of the late 1960s.

The fish pendant, on Dick’s account, began to emit a golden ray of light, and Dick suddenly experienced what he called, with a nod to Plato, anamnesis: the recollection or total recall of the entire sum of knowledge. Dick claimed to have access to what philosophers call the faculty of “intellectual intuition”: the direct perception by the mind of a metaphysical reality behind screens of appearance. Many philosophers since Kant have insisted that such intellectual intuition is available only to human beings in the guise of fraudulent obscurantism, usually as religious or mystical experience, like Emmanuel Swedenborg’s visions of the angelic multitude. This is what Kant called, in a lovely German word, “die Schwärmerei,” a kind of swarming enthusiasm, where the self is literally en-thused with the God, o theos. Brusquely sweeping aside the careful limitations and strictures that Kant placed on the different domains of pure and practical reason, the phenomenal and the noumenal, Dick claimed direct intuition of the ultimate nature of what he called “true reality.”

Yet the golden fish episode was just the beginning. In the following days and weeks, Dick experienced and indeed enjoyed a couple of nightlong psychedelic visions with phantasmagoric visual light shows. These hypnagogic episodes continued off and on, together with hearing voices and prophetic dreams, until his death eight years later at age 53. Many very weird things happened — too many to list here — including a clay pot that Dick called “Ho On” or “Oh Ho,” which spoke to him about various deep spiritual issues in a brash and irritable voice.

Now, was this just bad acid or good sodium pentothal? Was Dick seriously bonkers? Was he psychotic? Was he schizophrenic? (He writes, “The schizophrenic is a leap ahead that failed.”) Were the visions simply the effect of a series of brain seizures that some call T.L.E. — temporal lobe epilepsy? Could we now explain and explain away Dick’s revelatory experience by some better neuroscientific story about the brain? Perhaps. But the problem is that each of these causal explanations misses the richness of the phenomena that Dick was trying to describe and also overlooks his unique means for describing them.

The fact is that after Dick experienced the events of what he came to call “2-3-74” (the events of February and March of that year), he devoted the rest of his life to trying to understand what had happened to him. For Dick, understanding meant writing. Suffering from what we might call “chronic hypergraphia,” between 2-3-74 and his death, Dick wrote more than 8,000 pages about his experience. He often wrote all night, producing 20 single-spaced, narrow-margined pages at a go, largely handwritten and littered with extraordinary diagrams and cryptic sketches.

The unfinished mountain of paper, assembled posthumously into some 91 folders, was called “Exegesis.” The fragments were assembled by Dick’s friend Paul Williams and then sat in his garage in Glen Ellen, Calif., for the next several years. A beautifully edited selection of these texts, with a golden fish on the cover, was finally published at the end of 2011, weighing in at a mighty 950 pages. But this is still just a fraction of the whole.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Philip K. Dick by R.Crumb. Courtesy of Wired.[end-div]

British Literary Greats, Mapped

Frank Jacobs over at Strange Maps has found another really cool map. This one shows 181 British writers placed according to the part of the British Isles with which they are best associated.

[div class=attrib]From Strange Maps:[end-div]

Maps usually display only one layer of information. In most cases, they’re limited to the topography, place names and traffic infrastructure of a certain region. True, this is very useful, and in all fairness quite often it’s all we ask for. But to reduce cartography to a schematic of accessibility is to exclude the poetry of place.

Or in this case, the poetry and prose of place. This literary map of Britain is composed of the names of 181 British writers, each positioned in parts of the country with which they are associated.

This is not the best navigational tool imaginable. If you want to go from William Wordsworth to Alfred Tennyson, you could pass through Coleridge and Thomas Wyatt, slice through the Brontë sisters, step over Andrew Marvell and finally traverse Philip Larkin. All of which sounds kind of messy.

t’s also rather limited. To reduce the whole literary history of Britain to nine score and one writers can only be done by the exclusion of many other, at least equally worthy contributors to the country’s literary landscape. But completeness is not the point of this map: it is not an instrument for literary-historical navigation either. Its main purpose is sheer cartographic joy.

An added bonus is that we’re able to geo-locate some of English literature’s best-known names. Seamus Heaney is about as Irish as a pint of Guinness for breakfast on March 17th, but it’s a bit of a surprise to see C.S. Lewis placed in Northern Ireland as well. The writer of the Narnia saga is closely associated with Oxford, but was indeed born and raised in Belfast.

Thomas Hardy’s name fills out an area close to Wessex, the fictional west country where much of his stories are set. London is occupied by Ben Jonson and John Donne, among others. Hanging around the capital are Geoffrey Chaucer, who was born there, and Christopher Marlowe, a native of Canterbury. The Isle of Wight is formed by the names of David Gascoyne, the surrealist poet, and John Keats, the romantic poet. Neither was born on the island, but both spent some time there.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

Most Expensive Books

OK, it’s World Book Day today, March 1. Regardless whether or not this day was contrived by Hallmark (or more likely, Barnes and Noble or Amazon), it’s fascinating to look at some beautiful record holders.

[div class=attrib]From the Daily Telegraph:[end-div]

To mark World Book Day on March 1, we look at some of the world’s most valuable titles. In a list of the most expensive books sold at auction, The Economist put John James Audubon’s The Birds of America (1827-1838) at number one. It sold for $10.3m in 2010.

[div class=attrib]See the Top 10 most expensive books here.[end-div]

Religion for Atheists and the Agape Restaurant

Alain de Botton is a writer of book-length essays on love, travel, architecture and literature. In his latest book, Religion for Atheists, de Botton argues that while the supernatural claims of all religions are entirely false, religions still have important things to teach the secular world. An excerpt from the book below.

[div class=attrib]From the Wall Street Journal:[end-div]

One of the losses that modern society feels most keenly is the loss of a sense of community. We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighborliness that has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, by the pursuit of contact with one another primarily for individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.

In attempting to understand what has eroded our sense of community, historians have assigned an important role to the privatization of religious belief that occurred in Europe and the U.S. in the 19th century. They have suggested that we began to disregard our neighbors at around the same time that we ceased to honor our gods as a community.

This raises two questions: How did religion once enhance the spirit of community? More practically, can secular society ever recover that spirit without returning to the theological principles that were entwined with it? I, for one, believe that it is possible to reclaim our sense of community—and that we can do so, moreover, without having to build upon a religious foundation.

Insofar as modern society ever promises us access to a community, it is one centered on the worship of professional success. We sense that we are brushing up against its gates when the first question we are asked at a party is “What do you do?,” our answer to which will determine whether we are warmly welcomed or conclusively abandoned.

In these competitive, pseudo-communal gatherings, only a few sides of us count as currency with which to buy the goodwill of strangers. What matters above all is what is on our business cards. Those who have opted to spend their lives looking after children, writing poetry or nurturing orchards will be left in no doubt that they have run contrary to the dominant mores of the powerful, who will marginalize them accordingly.

Given this level of discrimination, it is no surprise that many of us choose to throw ourselves with a vengeance into our careers. Focusing on work to the exclusion of almost everything else is a plausible strategy in a world that accepts workplace achievements as the main tokens for securing not just the financial means to survive physically but also the attention that we require to thrive psychologically.

Religions seem to know a great deal about our loneliness. Even if we believe very little of what they tell us about the afterlife or the supernatural origins of their doctrines, we can nevertheless admire their understanding of what separates us from strangers and their attempts to melt away one or two of the prejudices that normally prevent us from building connections with others.

Consider Catholicism, which starts to create a sense of community with a setting. It marks off a piece of the earth, puts walls up around it and declares that within their confines there will reign values utterly unlike the ones that hold sway in the world beyond. A church gives us rare permission to lean over and say hello to a stranger without any danger of being thought predatory or insane.

The composition of the congregation also feels significant. Those in attendance tend not to be uniformly of the same age, race, profession or educational or income level; they are a random sampling of souls united only by their shared commitment to certain values. We are urged to overcome our provincialism and our tendency to be judgmental—and to make a sign of peace to whomever chance has placed on either side of us. The Church asks us to leave behind all references to earthly status. Here no one asks what anyone else “does.” It no longer matters who is the bond dealer and who the cleaner.

The Church does more, however, than merely declare that worldly success doesn’t matter. In a variety of ways, it enables us to imagine that we could be happy without it. Appreciating the reasons why we try to acquire status in the first place, it establishes conditions under which we can willingly surrender our attachment to it.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Alain de Botton. Courtesy of BBC.[end-div]


L’Entente Cordiale: Parenting the French Way

French children, it seems, unlike their cousins in the United States, don’t suffer temper tantrums, sit patiently at meal-times, defer to their parents, eat all their vegetables, respect adults, and are generally happy. Why is this and should American parents ditch the latest pop psychology handbooks for parenting lessons from La Belle France?

[div class=attrib]From the Wall Street Journal:[end-div]

When my daughter was 18 months old, my husband and I decided to take her on a little summer holiday. We picked a coastal town that’s a few hours by train from Paris, where we were living (I’m American, he’s British), and booked a hotel room with a crib. Bean, as we call her, was our only child at this point, so forgive us for thinking: How hard could it be?

We ate breakfast at the hotel, but we had to eat lunch and dinner at the little seafood restaurants around the old port. We quickly discovered that having two restaurant meals a day with a toddler deserved to be its own circle of hell.

Bean would take a brief interest in the food, but within a few minutes she was spilling salt shakers and tearing apart sugar packets. Then she demanded to be sprung from her high chair so she could dash around the restaurant and bolt dangerously toward the docks.

Our strategy was to finish the meal quickly. We ordered while being seated, then begged the server to rush out some bread and bring us our appetizers and main courses at the same time. While my husband took a few bites of fish, I made sure that Bean didn’t get kicked by a waiter or lost at sea. Then we switched. We left enormous, apologetic tips to compensate for the arc of torn napkins and calamari around our table.

After a few more harrowing restaurant visits, I started noticing that the French families around us didn’t look like they were sharing our mealtime agony. Weirdly, they looked like they were on vacation. French toddlers were sitting contentedly in their high chairs, waiting for their food, or eating fish and even vegetables. There was no shrieking or whining. And there was no debris around their tables.

Though by that time I’d lived in France for a few years, I couldn’t explain this. And once I started thinking about French parenting, I realized it wasn’t just mealtime that was different. I suddenly had lots of questions. Why was it, for example, that in the hundreds of hours I’d clocked at French playgrounds, I’d never seen a child (except my own) throw a temper tantrum? Why didn’t my French friends ever need to rush off the phone because their kids were demanding something? Why hadn’t their living rooms been taken over by teepees and toy kitchens, the way ours had?

Soon it became clear to me that quietly and en masse, French parents were achieving outcomes that created a whole different atmosphere for family life. When American families visited our home, the parents usually spent much of the visit refereeing their kids’ spats, helping their toddlers do laps around the kitchen island, or getting down on the floor to build Lego villages. When French friends visited, by contrast, the grownups had coffee and the children played happily by themselves.

By the end of our ruined beach holiday, I decided to figure out what French parents were doing differently. Why didn’t French children throw food? And why weren’t their parents shouting? Could I change my wiring and get the same results with my own offspring?

Driven partly by maternal desperation, I have spent the last several years investigating French parenting. And now, with Bean 6 years old and twins who are 3, I can tell you this: The French aren’t perfect, but they have some parenting secrets that really do work.

I first realized I was on to something when I discovered a 2009 study, led by economists at Princeton, comparing the child-care experiences of similarly situated mothers in Columbus, Ohio, and Rennes, France. The researchers found that American moms considered it more than twice as unpleasant to deal with their kids. In a different study by the same economists, working mothers in Texas said that even housework was more pleasant than child care.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here. This is adapted from “Bringing Up Bébé: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting,” to be published February 7, 2012 by the Penguin Press.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: That’s the way to do it … a young boy at the Côte d’Or restaurant, Saulieu. Courtesy of Owen Franken/Corbis / Guardian [end-div]

How to (Not) Read a Tough Book

Ever picked up a copy of the Illiad or War and Peace or Foucault’s Pendulum or Finnegan’s Wake leafed through the first five pages and given up? Well, you may be in good company. So, here are some useful tips for the readers, and non-readers alike, on how to get through some notable classics that demand our fullest attention and faculties.

[div class=attrib]From the Wall Street Journal:[end-div]

I’m determined to finish “The Iliad” before I start anything else, but I’ve been having trouble picking it up amid all the seasonal distractions and therefore I’m not reading anything at all: It’s blocking other books. Suggestions?

—E.S., New York

When I decided to read “War and Peace” a few years ago, I worried about exactly this problem: a challenging book slowing me down so much that I simply stopped reading anything at all. My solution, which worked, was to assign myself a certain number of pages—in this case, 100—each day, after which I was free to read anything else. One hundred pages a day may seem like a lot, but I had time on my hands, and (of course) “War and Peace” turned out to be anything but laborious. Still, there was a psychological comfort in knowing that if I wasn’t enjoying it, I wasn’t in a reading straitjacket.

With a book like “The Iliad,” which is far more demanding than “War and Peace,” I’d say one or two pages a day would be a perfectly respectable goal. You could see that time as a period of meditation or prayer—an excuse to be alone, quiet and contemplative.

You could also alternate reading “The Iliad” with listening to someone else read it. There’s no rule that says you can’t mix media on a single book, especially when it’s poetry, and the divine Alfred Molina reads Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of Homer’s classic.

Reading a work like “The Iliad” shouldn’t feel like punishment or homework. If it does, then read a sentence a day with the patience of Penelope.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Achilles tending Patroclus wounded by an arrow, identified by inscriptions on the upper part of the vase. Tondo of an Attic red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BC. From Vulci. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]

Ronald Searle

Ronald Searle, your serious wit and your heroic pen will be missed. Searle died on December 30, aged 91.

The first “real” book purchased by theDiagonal’s editor with his own money was “How To Be Topp” by Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle. The book featured Searle’s unique and unmistakable illustrations of anti-hero Nigel Molesworth, a stoic, shrewd and droll English schoolboy.

Yet while Searle will be best remembered for his drawings of Molesworth and friends at St.Custard’s high school and his invention of St.Trinian’s (school for rowdy schoolgirls), he leaves behind a critical body of work that graphically illustrates his brutal captivity at the hands of the Japanese during the Second World War.

Most of these drawings appear in his 1986 book, Ronald Searle: To the Kwai and Back, War Drawings 1939-1945. In the book, Searle also wrote of his experiences as a prisoner. Many of his original drawings are now in the permanent collection of the Imperial War Museum, London.

[div class=attrib]From the BBC:[end-div]

British cartoonist Ronald Searle, best known for creating the fictional girls’ school St Trinian’s, has died aged 91.

His daughter Kate Searle said in a statement that he “passed away peacefully in his sleep” in a hospital in France.

Searle’s spindly cartoons of the naughty schoolgirls first appeared in 1941, before the idea was adapted for film.

The first movie version, The Belles of St Trinian’s, was released in 1954.

Joyce Grenfell and George Cole starred in the film, along with Alastair Sim, who appeared in drag as headmistress Millicent Fritton.

Searle also provided illustrations the Molesworth series, written by Geoffrey Willans.

The gothic, line-drawn cartoons breathed life into the gruesome pupils of St Custard’s school, in particular the outspoken, but functionally-illiterate Nigel Molesworth “the goriller of 3B”.

Searle’s work regularly appeared in magazines and newspapers, including Punch and The New Yorker.

[div class=attrib]Read more here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Welcome back to the new term molesworth! From How to be Topp. Courtesy of Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle / Vanguard Press.[end-div]

MondayPoem: The Snow Is Deep on the Ground

We celebrate the arrival of winter to the northern hemisphere with an evocative poem by Kenneth Patchen.

[div class=attrib]From Poetry Foundation:[end-div]

An inspiration for the Beat Generation and a true “people’s poet,” Kenneth Patchen was a prolific writer, visual artist and performer whose exuberant, free-form productions celebrate spontaneity and attack injustices, materialism, and war.

By Kenneth Patchen

– The Snow Is Deep on the Ground

The snow is deep on the ground.
Always the light falls
Softly down on the hair of my belovèd.

This is a good world.
The war has failed.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the snow waits where love is.

Only a few go mad.
The sky moves in its whiteness
Like the withered hand of an old king.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the sky knows of our love.

The snow is beautiful on the ground.
And always the lights of heaven glow
Softly down on the hair of my belovèd.

[div class=attrib]Image: Kenneth Patchen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]

MondayPoem: Frederick Douglass

Robert Hayden is generally accepted as one of the premier authors of African American poetry. His expertly crafted poems focusing on the black historical experience earned him numerous awards.

Hayden was elected to the American Academy of Poets in 1975. From 1976 – 1978, he was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the first African American holder of that post). He died in 1980.

By Robert Hayden

– Frederick Douglass

When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

[div class=attrib]Image: Robert Hayden. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]

Fahrenheit 2451? Ray Bradbury Comes to the eReader

Fahrenheit 2,451 may well be the temperature at which the glass in your Kindle or Nook eReader is likely to melt. This may give Ray Bradbury mixed feelings.

In one of his masterworks, Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury warned of the displacement and destruction of books by newer means of distribution such as television. Of the novel’s central idea Bradbury says, “It’s about the moronic influence of popular culture through local TV news, the proliferation of giant screens and the bombardment of factoids… We’ve moved in to this period of history that I described in Fahrenheit 50 years ago.”

So, it’s rather a surprise to see his work in full digital form available through an eReader, such as the Kindle or Nook. More over at Wired on Bradbury’s reasoning.

[div class=attrib]From Wired:[end-div]

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is now officially available as an e-book. Simon & Schuster are publishing both the hardcover and digital editions in the United States for a deal reportedly worth millions of dollars, according to the Associated Press.

Bradbury has been vocal about his dislike for e-books and the internet, calling it “a big distraction.” In order to get him to relent, the publisher had to both pay a premium price and play a little hardball.

Bradbury’s agent Michael Congdon told the AP that renewing the book’s hardcover rights, whether with Simon & Schuster or any other publisher, had to include digital rights as well.

“We explained the situation to [Bradbury] that a new contract wouldn’t be possible without e-book rights,” said Congdon. “He understood and gave us the right to go ahead.”

Unfortunately for hard-core Bradbury fans, according to Simon & Schuster’s press release [PDF], only Fahrenheit 451 is currently being released as an e-book. The deal includes the mass-market rights to The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man, but not their digital rights.

Like the Harry Potter books before them, samizdat digital copies of Bradbury’s books edited by fans have been floating around for years. (I don’t know anyone who’s actually memorized Fahrenheit, like the novel’s “Book People” do with banned books.)

Bradbury is far from the last digital holdout. Another K-12 classic, Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, is only available in print. None of Thomas Pynchon’s novels are available as e-books, although Pynchon has been characteristically quiet on the subject. Nor are any English translations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and only a few of Marquez’s story collections and none of his classic novels are even available in Spanish. Early editions of James Joyce’s books are in the public domain, but Finnegans Wake, whose rights are tightly controlled by Joyce’s grandson, is not.

Most of the gaps in the digital catalog, however, don’t stem from individual authors or rightsholders holding out like Bradbury. They’re structural; whole presses whose catalogs haven’t been digitized, whose rights aren’t extended to certain countries, or whose contracts didn’t anticipate some of the newer innovations in e-reading, such as book lending, whether from a retailer, another user, or a public library.

In light of Bradbury’s lifelong advocacy for libraries, I asked Simon & Schuster whether Fahrenheit 451 would be made available for digital lending; their representatives did not respond. [Update: Simon & Schuster’s Emer Flounders says the publisher plans to make Fahrenheit 451 available as an e-book to libraries in the first half of 2012.]

In a 2009 interview, Bradbury says he rebuffed an offer from Yahoo to publish a book or story on the internet. “You know what I told them? ‘To hell with you. To hell with you and to hell with the Internet.’”

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Fahrenheit 451. Courtesy of Panther.[end-div]

MondayPoem: Inferno – Canto I

Dante Alighieri is held in high regard in Italy, where he is often referred to as il Poeta, the poet. He is best known for the monumental poem La Commedia, later renamed La Divina Commedia – The Divine Comedy. Scholars consider it to be the greatest work of literature in the Italian language. Many also consider Dante to be symbolic father of the Italian language.

[div class=attrib]According to Wikipedia:[end-div]

He wrote the Comedy in a language he called “Italian”, in some sense an amalgamated literary language mostly based on the regional dialect of Tuscany, with some elements of Latin and of the other regional dialects. The aim was to deliberately reach a readership throughout Italy, both laymen, clergymen and other poets. By creating a poem of epic structure and philosophic purpose, he established that the Italian language was suitable for the highest sort of expression. In French, Italian is sometimes nicknamed la langue de Dante. Publishing in the vernacular language marked Dante as one of the first (among others such as Geoffrey Chaucer and Giovanni Boccaccio) to break free from standards of publishing in only Latin (the language of liturgy, history, and scholarship in general, but often also of lyric poetry). This break set a precedent and allowed more literature to be published for a wider audience—setting the stage for greater levels of literacy in the future.

By Dante Alighieri

(translated by the Rev. H. F. Cary)

– Inferno, Canto I

In the midway of this our mortal life,
I found me in a gloomy wood, astray
Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell
It were no easy task, how savage wild
That forest, how robust and rough its growth,
Which to remember only, my dismay
Renews, in bitterness not far from death.
Yet to discourse of what there good befell,
All else will I relate discover’d there.
How first I enter’d it I scarce can say,
Such sleepy dullness in that instant weigh’d
My senses down, when the true path I left,
But when a mountain’s foot I reach’d, where clos’d
The valley, that had pierc’d my heart with dread,
I look’d aloft, and saw his shoulders broad
Already vested with that planet’s beam,
Who leads all wanderers safe through every way.

Then was a little respite to the fear,
That in my heart’s recesses deep had lain,
All of that night, so pitifully pass’d:
And as a man, with difficult short breath,
Forespent with toiling, ‘scap’d from sea to shore,
Turns to the perilous wide waste, and stands
At gaze; e’en so my spirit, that yet fail’d
Struggling with terror, turn’d to view the straits,
That none hath pass’d and liv’d.  My weary frame
After short pause recomforted, again
I journey’d on over that lonely steep,

The hinder foot still firmer.  Scarce the ascent
Began, when, lo! a panther, nimble, light,
And cover’d with a speckled skin, appear’d,
Nor, when it saw me, vanish’d, rather strove
To check my onward going; that ofttimes
With purpose to retrace my steps I turn’d.

The hour was morning’s prime, and on his way
Aloft the sun ascended with those stars,
That with him rose, when Love divine first mov’d
Those its fair works: so that with joyous hope
All things conspir’d to fill me, the gay skin
Of that swift animal, the matin dawn
And the sweet season.  Soon that joy was chas’d,
And by new dread succeeded, when in view
A lion came, ‘gainst me, as it appear’d,

With his head held aloft and hunger-mad,
That e’en the air was fear-struck.  A she-wolf
Was at his heels, who in her leanness seem’d
Full of all wants, and many a land hath made
Disconsolate ere now.  She with such fear
O’erwhelmed me, at the sight of her appall’d,
That of the height all hope I lost.  As one,
Who with his gain elated, sees the time
When all unwares is gone, he inwardly
Mourns with heart-griping anguish; such was I,
Haunted by that fell beast, never at peace,
Who coming o’er against me, by degrees
Impell’d me where the sun in silence rests.

While to the lower space with backward step
I fell, my ken discern’d the form one of one,
Whose voice seem’d faint through long disuse of speech.
When him in that great desert I espied,
“Have mercy on me!”  cried I out aloud,
“Spirit! or living man! what e’er thou be!”

He answer’d: “Now not man, man once I was,
And born of Lombard parents, Mantuana both
By country, when the power of Julius yet
Was scarcely firm.  At Rome my life was past
Beneath the mild Augustus, in the time
Of fabled deities and false.  A bard
Was I, and made Anchises’ upright son
The subject of my song, who came from Troy,
When the flames prey’d on Ilium’s haughty towers.
But thou, say wherefore to such perils past
Return’st thou?  wherefore not this pleasant mount
Ascendest, cause and source of all delight?”
“And art thou then that Virgil, that well-spring,
From which such copious floods of eloquence
Have issued?”  I with front abash’d replied.
“Glory and light of all the tuneful train!
May it avail me that I long with zeal
Have sought thy volume, and with love immense
Have conn’d it o’er.  My master thou and guide!
Thou he from whom alone I have deriv’d
That style, which for its beauty into fame
Exalts me.  See the beast, from whom I fled.
O save me from her, thou illustrious sage!

“For every vein and pulse throughout my frame
She hath made tremble.”  He, soon as he saw
That I was weeping, answer’d, “Thou must needs
Another way pursue, if thou wouldst ‘scape
From out that savage wilderness.  This beast,
At whom thou criest, her way will suffer none
To pass, and no less hindrance makes than death:
So bad and so accursed in her kind,
That never sated is her ravenous will,
Still after food more craving than before.
To many an animal in wedlock vile
She fastens, and shall yet to many more,
Until that greyhound come, who shall destroy
Her with sharp pain.  He will not life support
By earth nor its base metals, but by love,
Wisdom, and virtue, and his land shall be
The land ‘twixt either Feltro.  In his might
Shall safety to Italia’s plains arise,
For whose fair realm, Camilla, virgin pure,
Nisus, Euryalus, and Turnus fell.
He with incessant chase through every town
Shall worry, until he to hell at length
Restore her, thence by envy first let loose.
I for thy profit pond’ring now devise,
That thou mayst follow me, and I thy guide
Will lead thee hence through an eternal space,
Where thou shalt hear despairing shrieks, and see
Spirits of old tormented, who invoke
A second death; and those next view, who dwell
Content in fire, for that they hope to come,
Whene’er the time may be, among the blest,
Into whose regions if thou then desire
T’ ascend, a spirit worthier then I
Must lead thee, in whose charge, when I depart,
Thou shalt be left: for that Almighty King,
Who reigns above, a rebel to his law,
Adjudges me, and therefore hath decreed,
That to his city none through me should come.
He in all parts hath sway; there rules, there holds
His citadel and throne.  O happy those,
Whom there he chooses!” I to him in few:
“Bard! by that God, whom thou didst not adore,
I do beseech thee (that this ill and worse
I may escape) to lead me, where thou saidst,
That I Saint Peter’s gate may view, and those
Who as thou tell’st, are in such dismal plight.”

Onward he mov’d, I close his steps pursu’d.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire poem here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Dante Alighieri, engraving after the fresco in Bargello Chapel, painted by Giotto di Bondone. Courtesy of Wikipedia.[end-div]

MondayPoem: First Thanksgiving

A chronicler of the human condition and deeply personal emotion, poet Sharon Olds is no shrinking violet. Her contemporary poems have been both highly praised and condemned for their explicit frankness and intimacy.

[div class=attrib]From Poetry Foundation:[end-div]

In her Salon interview, Olds addressed the aims of her poetry. “I think that my work is easy to understand because I am not a thinker. I am not a…How can I put it? I write the way I perceive, I guess. It’s not really simple, I don’t think, but it’s about ordinary things—feeling about things, about people. I’m not an intellectual. I’m not an abstract thinker. And I’m interested in ordinary life.” She added that she is “not asking a poem to carry a lot of rocks in its pockets. Just being an ordinary observer and liver and feeler and letting the experience get through you onto the notebook with the pen, through the arm, out of the body, onto the page, without distortion.”

Olds has won numerous awards for her work, including fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Widely anthologized, her work has also been published in a number of journals and magazines. She was New York State Poet from 1998 to 2000, and currently teaches in the graduate writing program at New York University.

By Sharon Olds

– First Thanksgiving

When she comes back, from college, I will see
the skin of her upper arms, cool,
matte, glossy. She will hug me, my old
soupy chest against her breasts,
I will smell her hair! She will sleep in this apartment,
her sleep like an untamed, good object,
like a soul in a body. She came into my life the
second great arrival, after him, fresh
from the other world—which lay, from within him,
within me. Those nights, I fed her to sleep,
week after week, the moon rising,
and setting, and waxing—whirling, over the months,
in a slow blur, around our planet.
Now she doesn’t need love like that, she has
had it. She will walk in glowing, we will talk,
and then, when she’s fast asleep, I’ll exult
to have her in that room again,
behind that door! As a child, I caught
bees, by the wings, and held them, some seconds,
looked into their wild faces,
listened to them sing, then tossed them back
into the air—I remember the moment the
arc of my toss swerved, and they entered
the corrected curve of their departure.

[div class=attrib]Image: Sharon Olds. Courtesy of[end-div]

MondayPoem: Voyager

Poet, essayist and playwright Todd Hearon grew up in North Carolina. He earned a PhD in editorial studies from Boston University. He is winner of a number of national poetry and playwriting awards including the 2007 Friends of Literature Prize and a Dobie Paisano Fellowship from the University of Texas at Austin.

By Todd Hearon

– Voyager

We’ve packed our bags, we’re set to fly
no one knows where, the maps won’t do.
We’re crossing the ocean’s nihilistic blue
with an unborn infant’s opal eye.

It has the clarity of earth and sky
seen from a spacecraft, once removed,
as through an amniotic lens, that groove-
lessness of space, the last star by.

We have set out to live and die
into the interstices of a new
nowhere to be or be returning to

(a little like an infant’s airborne cry).
We’ve set our sights on nothing left to lose
and made of loss itself a lullaby.

[div class=attrib]Todd Hearon. Image courtesy of Boston University.[end-div]

MondayPoem: When the World Ended as We Knew It

Joy Harjo is an acclaimed poet, musician and noted teacher. Her poetry is grounded in the United States’ Southwest and often encompasses Native American stories and values.

As Poetry Foundation remarks:

Consistently praised for the depth and thematic concerns in her writings, Harjo has emerged as a major figure in contemporary American poetry.

She once commented, “I feel strongly that I have a responsibility to all the sources that I am: to all past and future ancestors, to my home country, to all places that I touch down on and that are myself, to all voices, all women, all of my tribe, all people, all earth, and beyond that to all beginnings and endings. In a strange kind of sense [writing] frees me to believe in myself, to be able to speak, to have voice, because I have to; it is my survival.” Harjo’s work is largely autobiographical, informed by her love of the natural world and her preoccupation with survival and the limitations of language.

By Joy Harjo

– When the World Ended as We Knew It

We were dreaming on an occupied island at the farthest edge
of a trembling nation when it went down.

Two towers rose up from the east island of commerce and touched
the sky. Men walked on the moon. Oil was sucked dry
by two brothers. Then it went down. Swallowed
by a fire dragon, by oil and fear.
Eaten whole.

It was coming.

We had been watching since the eve of the missionaries in their
long and solemn clothes, to see what would happen.

We saw it
from the kitchen window over the sink
as we made coffee, cooked rice and
potatoes, enough for an army.

We saw it all, as we changed diapers and fed
the babies. We saw it,
through the branches
of the knowledgeable tree
through the snags of stars, through
the sun and storms from our knees
as we bathed and washed
the floors.

The conference of the birds warned us, as the flew over
destroyers in the harbor, parked there since the first takeover.
It was by their song and talk we knew when to rise
when to look out the window
to the commotion going on—
the magnetic field thrown off by grief.

We heard it.
The racket in every corner of the world. As
the hunger for war rose up in those who would steal to be president
to be king or emperor, to own the trees, stones, and everything
else that moved about the earth, inside the earth
and above it.

We knew it was coming, tasted the winds who gathered intelligence
from each leaf and flower, from every mountain, sea
and desert, from every prayer and song all over this tiny universe
floating in the skies of infinite

And then it was over, this world we had grown to love
for its sweet grasses, for the many-colored horses
and fishes, for the shimmering possibilities
while dreaming.

But then there were the seeds to plant and the babies
who needed milk and comforting, and someone
picked up a guitar or ukulele from the rubble
and began to sing about the light flutter
the kick beneath the skin of the earth
we felt there, beneath us

a warm animal
a song being born between the legs of her;
a poem.

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of PBS.[end-div]

The Middleman is Dead; Long Live the Middleman

In another sign of Amazon’s unquenchable thirst for all things commerce, the company is now moving more aggressively into publishing.

[div class=attrib]From the New York Times:[end-div] has taught readers that they do not need bookstores. Now it is encouraging writers to cast aside their publishers.

Amazon will publish 122 books this fall in an array of genres, in both physical and e-book form. It is a striking acceleration of the retailer’s fledging publishing program that will place Amazon squarely in competition with the New York houses that are also its most prominent suppliers.

It has set up a flagship line run by a publishing veteran, Laurence Kirshbaum, to bring out brand-name fiction and nonfiction. It signed its first deal with the self-help author Tim Ferriss. Last week it announced a memoir by the actress and director Penny Marshall, for which it paid $800,000, a person with direct knowledge of the deal said.

Publishers say Amazon is aggressively wooing some of their top authors. And the company is gnawing away at the services that publishers, critics and agents used to provide.

Several large publishers declined to speak on the record about Amazon’s efforts. “Publishers are terrified and don’t know what to do,” said Dennis Loy Johnson of Melville House, who is known for speaking his mind.

“Everyone’s afraid of Amazon,” said Richard Curtis, a longtime agent who is also an e-book publisher. “If you’re a bookstore, Amazon has been in competition with you for some time. If you’re a publisher, one day you wake up and Amazon is competing with you too. And if you’re an agent, Amazon may be stealing your lunch because it is offering authors the opportunity to publish directly and cut you out.

[div class=attrib]Read more here.[end-div]

MondayPoem: Water

This week, theDiagonal focuses its energies on that most precious of natural resources — water.

In his short poem “Water”, Ralph Waldo Emerson reminds us of its more fundamental qualities.

Emerson published his first book, Nature, in 1836, in which he outlined his transcendentalist philosophy. As Poetry Foundation elaborates:

His manifesto stated that the world consisted of Spirit (thought, ideas, moral laws, abstract truth, meaning itself ) and Nature (all of material reality, all that atoms comprise); it held that the former, which is timeless, is the absolute cause of the latter, which serves in turn to express Spirit, in a medium of time and space, to the senses. In other words, the objective, physical world—what Emerson called the “Not-Me”—is symbolic and exists for no other purpose than to acquaint human beings with its complement—the subjective, ideational world, identified with the conscious self and referred to in Emersonian counterpoint as the “Me.” Food, water, and air keep us alive, but the ultimate purpose for remaining alive is simply to possess the meanings of things, which by definition involves a translation of the attention from the physical fact to its spiritual value.

By Ralph Waldo Emerson

– Water

The water understands
Civilization well;
It wets my foot, but prettily,
It chills my life, but wittily,
It is not disconcerted,
It is not broken-hearted:
Well used, it decketh joy,
Adorneth, doubleth joy:
Ill used, it will destroy,
In perfect time and measure
With a face of golden pleasure
Elegantly destroy.

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons.[end-div]

Greatest Literary Suicides

Hot on the heals of our look at literary deaths we look specifically at the greatest suicides in literature. Although subject to personal taste and sensibility the starter list excerpted below is a fine beginning, and leaves much to ponder.

[div class=attrib]From Flavorpill:[end-div]

1. Ophelia, Hamlet, William Shakespeare

Hamlet’s jilted lover Ophelia drowns in a stream surrounded by the flowers she had held in her arms. Though Ophelia’s death can be parsed as an accident, her growing madness and the fact that she was, as Gertrude says, “incapable of her own distress.” And as far as we’re concerned, Gertrude’s monologue about Ophelia’s drowning is one of the most beautiful descriptions of death in Shakespeare.

2. Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy

In an extremely dramatic move only befitting the emotional mess that is Anna Karenina, the heroine throws herself under a train in her despair, mirroring the novel’s early depiction of a railway worker’s death by similar means.

3. Cecilia Lisbon, The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides

Eugenides’ entire novel deserves to be on this list for its dreamy horror of five sisters killing themselves in the 1970s Michigan suburbs. But the death of the youngest, Cecilia, is the most brutal and distressing. Having failed to kill herself by cutting her wrists, she leaves her own party to throw herself from her bedroom window, landing impaled on the steel fence below.

4. Emma Bovary, Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert

In life, Emma Bovary wished for romance, for intrigue, to escape the banalities of her provincial life as a doctor’s wife. Hoping to expire gracefully, she eats a bowl of arsenic, but is punished by hours of indelicate and public suffering before she finally dies.

5. Edna Pontellier, The Awakening, Kate Chopin

This is the first suicide that many students experience in literature, and it is a strange and calm one: Edna simply walks into the water. We imagine the reality of drowning yourself would be much messier, but Chopin’s version is a relief, a cool compress against the pains of Edna’s psyche in beautiful, fluttering prose.

Topping out the top 10 we have:

Lily Bart, The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
Septimus Warren Smith, Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
James O. Incandeza, Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Romeo and Juliet, Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare
Inspector Javert, Les Misérables, Victor Hugo

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article here.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1829–1896). Image courtesy of Wikipedia / Creative Commons.[end-div]