Archive for September, 2014

“Another Look” book club goes out of this world with Calvino’s Cosmicomics

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Helping matter talk

We’re rolling into fall, which means we’re launching into the third season of Stanford’s “Another Look” book club. No surprise to Book Haven readers that the book is Italo Calvino‘s Cosmicomics – given recent posts about Calvino here and here. My article in Stanford Report today:

“Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.” So begins the improbable tale of a man in love with the moon, and the woman in love with him, at a time when the moon was so close to the earth you could …

Wait a minute. The moon, at the dawn of time when it was closest to the earth, was still at least 12,000 miles away. Too long for any ladder. Clearly, Italo Calvino (1923-1985) one of the greatest European writers of the last century, took a mountain of artistic license when he published his science-based fantasies, Cosmicomics, in 1965. But for the generations of readers swept away with the wit and magic of these loosely linked stories, that’s part of the fun.

Cosmicomics will be discussed at the popular “Another Look” book club, at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 27, at Levinthal Hall, Stanford Humanities Center. Acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, the Rosina Pierotti Professor of Italian Literature, will moderate the panel, with award-winning novelist Tobias Wolff, the Ward W. and Priscilla B. Woods Professor, and literary journalist and visiting scholar Cynthia Haven, who blogs at The Book Haven.

Harrison hosts the radio talk show “Entitled Opinions” and contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. The event launches the third year of “Another Look,” founded by the Creative Writing Program in the Department of English.  The event is free and open to the public.

Cosmicomics will be fêted on the eve of the launch of the Stanford Arts Institute’s year-long program of events, “Imagining the Universe.”  It’s entirely apropos; no author did a better job of imagining the universe than Calvino did. As Calvino wrote in a letter, “Man is simply the best chance we know of that matter has had of providing itself with information about itself” – and he took it upon himself to do so.

Consider dreamy passages such as this one from the same story, “The Distance of the Moon”: “When she was full – nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light – it looked as if she were going to crush us; when she was new, she rolled around the sky like a black umbrella blown by the wind; and when she was waxing, she came forward with her horns so low she seemed about to stick into the peak of a promontory and get caught there.”

Each story begins with a passage from the science of the time, and follows with a tale told by a chatty, avuncular fellow named Qfwfq. We hear eyewitness accounts of the big bang, the first radiations of the sun, the advent of color. But we never know exactly what Qfwfq is – sometimes an atom, sometimes a mollusk, sometimes the last dinosaur, sometimes an undefined inhabitant of the nebulae.

cosmicomicsHarrison reminds us that the stories, fantasy notwithstanding, never stray far from the Italy of Calvino’s day.  In the postwar years of the 1950s and 1960s, Italy’s largely agrarian society went through rapid industrialization and dramatic modernization, as people migrated to the swelling cities.  Consequently, the 12 stories are suffused with longing and loss, the pull of the past as well as aspiration for the future.  (A Q&A with Harrison is here.)

Calvino loved the genre he created so much that he went on to create several more volumes of Cosmicomics, which have recently been republished as The Complete Cosmicomics. “Another Look” considers only the original 153-page volume, which some consider Calvino’s finest work.

Harrison explained why he picked the stories for the Stanford-based community book club this way: “I like them because of their imaginative vitality and flair. I thought it would be a book of the sort that hardly anyone in the group would have read. Frankly, I find that Anglo-American fiction, which is a great tradition, is far too dominated by the genres of realism, with its lifelike characters, plots, setting, and so forth. From that point of view, Cosmicomics completely scrambles the readers’ expectations.”

He added that “in so many different areas of the sciences, the forces of evolution are more and more being brought in as an explanatory mechanism for understanding anything that is under investigation. The force of evolution, the anthropomorphic imagination that you have in these stories, along with the sheer charm of the book – that’s why I chose it.”

Wolff agreed. “Cosmicomics – like all of Calvino’s work – is brilliant and unconventional, permitting itself an almost reckless freedom of imagination,” he said. “It may puzzle some readers, refusing as it does to entice us with recognizable, ‘realistic’ situations and characters, but I trust that puzzlement will turn to delight as Calvino’s wit and sense of intelligent play begin to disarm us. This is a thoroughly original piece of work, and rightly esteemed a classic.”

Cosmicomics will be available at the Stanford Bookstore, at Kepler’s in Menlo Park and at Bell’s Books in Palo Alto.


The “Another Look” book club focuses on short masterpieces that have been forgotten, neglected or overlooked – or may simply not have received the attention they merit. The selected works are short to encourage the involvement of Bay Area readers with limited free time. Registration at the website is encouraged for regular updates and details on the selected books and events.


Fran Lebowitz: “I could write in my own blood without hurting myself.”

Saturday, September 27th, 2014
Christopher Macsurak

Funny lady – but funny ha ha or funny peculiar? (Photo: Christopher Macsurak)

Fran Lebowitz popped up on the international radar with Metropolitan Life in 1978. I know. I reviewed it for the Fleet Street rag I was working for at the time. I wondered then whether she’d have a following outside New York – I wasn’t sure how many people outside Manhattan would find such lines as “There is no such thing as inner peace. There is only nervousness and death” to be funny. She seems to have found an audience nonetheless, though her books have been few. She complains of “writer’s blockade.” A few days ago I noted how The Paris Review always asks about writers’ working habits. Well, here’s how she responded in the famous journal when, in 1993, she was asked how she writes:

Lebowitz: A Bic pen. I’m such a slow writer I have no need for anything as fast as a word processor. I don’t need anything so snappy. I write so slowly that I could write in my own blood without hurting myself. I think if there were no such thing as men, there would be no word processors. Male writers like them because they have this sneaking suspicion that writing is not the most masculine profession. This is why you have so much idiotic behavior among male writers. There are more male writers who own guns than any other profession except police officers. They like machines because it makes them seem more masculine. Well, I work on a machine. It’s almost as good as being a mechanic.

I have a real aversion to machines. I write with a pen. Then I read it to someone who writes it onto the computer. What are those computer letters made of anyway? Light? Too insubstantial. Paper, you can feel it. A pen. There’s a connection. A pen goes exactly at your speed, whereas that machine jumps. And then, that machine is waiting for you, just humming “uh-huh, yes?”

It reminds me of when a choreographer I know was creating a ballet. He was stuck, and he asked me to come help.


Skip the rehearsals.

I said, How could I help you choreograph a ballet?

He said, I’d like you to come and sit there while I’m doing it. You’re so judgmental I would find it helpful.

So I went to his studio several times while he was making the ballet. I saw the only job that was worse than writing. My idea of pure hell. The dancers sit there waiting for him to come up with something. It would be as if the letters were sitting there, or the words, smoking cigarettes, staring at you, as if to say, Well? OK, come on.

Plus they are paid by the minute. And a piano player is sitting there as well. Twenty-five people sitting in the room staring at you while you are thinking. I can’t believe anyone has ever made a ballet.

Interviewer: Were you expected to criticize what was going on?

Lebowitz: I was expected to sneer. I did sit there several afternoons in a row, kind of sneering. I don’t know why he needed me, because the dancers were doing that. They were finding it hard to mask their contempt, which was: why is it taking so long for him to think this up? Now, whenever I sit at the desk, I imagine the words sitting there sulking against the wall, waiting for me to think something up. He gave me such admiration for choreographers you can’t imagine. It’s just like the way I write a sentence. I write a sentence a thousand times, changing it all the time to look at it in different ways. He has to do that with living people. Human contact at its absolute worst. When people say certain choreographers are mean to their dancers, I think, Not mean enough! If I were a choreographer the thing I would most need would be a gun. Every time someone gave you one of those looks, you could just shoot them..

Read the rest here.

Not all of us have been tortured by watching choreography in the making, but in an interview this month over at PaperMag here (in case you haven’t figured it out, this brand-new interview, not the 20-year-old one, is the reason for today’s musings), she explained a problem many Book Haven readers can relate to more readily:


You see the problem.

I have made one bad real estate decision after another my entire life. Knowing this, I made a lot of effort to consult people who I believe to be intelligent in real estate. It made no difference. I made the worst decision of my life. Even if you’re moving to an apartment that turns out being OK, like last time, which was only four years ago, if you have 10,000 books, it’s a difficult undertaking. The more that you mention this to people, even if people know about it, the more you are criticized for having 10,000 books. I finally said to somebody the other day, “You know what? They are books. It’s not like I am running an opium den for children. There’s nothing wrong with that – you may not want to have that, you may think that’s crazy, but you cannot have a moral objection to this.” Even real estate agents would say to me, “If you got rid of the books, you wouldn’t need such a big apartment.” And I would say, “Yes that’s true, but what if I had four children? Would you say, ‘Why don’t you put them in storage, because you can’t really afford an apartment for them?'” Basically my whole life, I’ve paid for these books. Buying them is nothing, but housing them is hard because they need a giant apartment. People say, “Why do you need such a big apartment – do you throw a lot of parties?” No. It’s for the books. I believe books to be the perfect companion. They’re very good-looking, they’re there when you need them, but it’s not just the books. It’s where they live, which is in bookcases with glass doors. I only put them in cases with glass doors because dust is very bad for books.

But what did Leszek Kołakowski really mean?

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

They didn’t get it. (Photo: Piotr Wojcik)

“The seductively suggestive title of Kołakowski’s talk was ‘The Devil in History.’ For a while there was silence as students, faculty, and visitors listened intently. Kołakowski’s writings were well known to many of those present and his penchant for irony and close reasoning was familiar. But even so, the audience was clearly having trouble following his argument. Try as they would, they could not decode the metaphor. An air of bewildered mystification started to fall across the auditorium. And then, about a third of the way through, my neighbor—Timothy Garton Ash—leaned across. ‘I’ve got it,’ he whispered. ‘He really is talking about the Devil.’ And so he was.”

– From Tony Judt‘s “Leszek Kołakowski (1927–2009)” in the NYRB (hat tip to Artur Sebastian Rosman)


New feather in Marjorie Perloff’s cap, and a few words about making literature “useful.”

Wednesday, September 24th, 2014
Marjorie Perloff


A new feather for Stanford’s Marjorie Perloff: the influential critic is the 2014 recipient of Washington University’s International Humanities Medal.  The award honors humanistic endeavors in scholarship, journalism, literature, or the arts that have made a difference in the world. Past winners include Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk in 2006; journalist Michael Pollan in 2008; novelist and nonfiction writer Francine Prose in 2010, and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns in 2012. You can read more about Perloff on the Stanford website here.

She will receive the medal during a ceremony on October 22 at Washington University in St. Louis. The news is on the website of the University of Southern California, where Perloff is Florence R. Scott Professor of English Emerita at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences – here.

Perloff is the author of 16 books and hundreds of articles, and “will be honored for her outstanding body of work, and for her impact on both the discipline of literary criticism and the landscape of contemporary poetry,” according to the website.

FeatherBut the occasion gave Perloff an opportunity to say some welcome words about the humanities, and literature in particular: “One of the difficulties facing the humanities is the tendency to justify everything now by saying it must be ‘useful,’

 ” she said.

“I don’t think studying literature needs any justification,” she said. “It’s simply one of the great arenas of human endeavor and has been from ancient times to the present. The study of literature literally transforms your life, opening up to you other worlds outside your own narrow one. It enhances your sense of the richness of life and its fascinating complexity: Indeed, it is life, in another form. To have no familiarity with the great literary texts is to lead a diminished life.”



Author, author! No, not me–him.

In other news, the modest fame of the Book Haven continues to spread – this time to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, which gave us a shout-out in an article about upcoming production of Les Misérables at Cleveland’s Great Lakes Theater. In a recitation of the events of the 1832 failed uprising, it quoted from “Stanford University’s Cynthia Haven in her fun, informative blog post ‘Enjoy ‘Les Misérables.’ But please get the history straight.’” It sounds like a great production, if you’re in the area. Read the whole article here.

Humble Moi seems to have become some sort of citable expert on Les Misérables and Victor Hugo, what with our recent Stanford talk on the subject here, and other posts here and here and and here, and the original post here, which currently has 99 comments, a Book Haven record. That means you have the opportunity to make the 100th comment, if you act quickly. We’ll give you a shout-out, too.


Postscript on 9/25: Congratulations, Linda McCoy! You made the 100th post on ‘Enjoy ‘Les Misérables.’ But please get the history straight.’” You had only a few minutes to enjoy the honor before I found an earlier comment from you in the spam folder. So you have the 98th and 101st comments now, technically speaking – but we’re calling it for you. You won by a hair! So here’s a little champers to celebrate. My favorite. Veuve Clicquot. Enjoy.

Italo Calvino answers the question: “Are novelists liars?”

Monday, September 22nd, 2014

“a matter of mental mechanisms…”

Someone said the Paris Review interviews are more addictive than crack. I’m not sure I disagree. Here’s a case in point: the eminent journal published a collage of interviews with Italo Calvino posthumously, in 1992. We wrote about Calvino a few days ago here, but I couldn’t resist publishing a few highlights from the Paris Review. (Read the whole thing here.)

One question that always gets asked in the Paris Review concerns the writer’s method of work, in this case, the physical act of writing. I think these responses always appeal to writers, though I always wonder if these queries aren’t a crashing bore to people who are insurance actuaries or window-washers. I don’t suppose they read the Paris Review anyway, but the line of questioning may be a deterrent. Well, I’m going to chase the actuaries away, too. Here’s how Calvino responded:

“I write by hand, making many, many corrections. I would say I cross out more than I write. I have to hunt for words when I speak, and I have the same difficulty when writing. Then I make a number of additions, interpolations, that I write in a very tiny hand. There comes a moment when I myself can’t read my handwriting, so I use a magnifying glass to figure out what I’ve written. I have two different handwritings. One is large with fairly big letters—the os and as have a big hole in the center. This is the hand I use when I’m copying or when I’m rather sure of what I’m writing. My other hand corresponds to a less confident mental state and is very small—the os are like dots. This is very hard to decipher, even for me.

“My pages are always covered with canceling lines and revisions. There was a time when I made a number of handwritten drafts. Now, after the first draft, written by hand and completely scrawled over, I start typing it out, deciphering as I go. When I finally reread the typescript, I discover an entirely different text that I often revise further. Then I make more corrections. On each page I try first to make my corrections with a typewriter; I then correct some more by hand. Often the page becomes so unreadable that I type it over a second time. I envy those writers who can proceed without correcting.”

calvino-spidersIn the postwar years, Calvino began to work on his first novel, The Path to the Nest of Spiders: “Then I began to write novels. It is a matter of mental mechanisms. If one gets used to translating into a novel one’s experiences, one’s ideas, what one has to say becomes a novel; one is left with no raw materials for another form of literary expression. My way of writing prose is rather closer to the way a poet composes a poem. I am not a novelist who writes long novels. I concentrate an idea or an experience into a short synthetic text that goes side by side with other texts to form a series. I pay particular attention to expressions and words both with regard to their rhythms, their sounds, and the images they evoke.”

Joseph Brodsky once said that the only thing poetry and politics have in common are the letters “p” and “o”. For a long time, Calvino didn’t agree, but he came around in his own time, in his own way: “The idea of putting literature in second place, after politics, is an enormous mistake, because politics almost never achieves its ideals. Literature, on the other hand, in its own field can achieve something and in the very long run can also have some practical effect. By now I have come to believe that important things are achieved only through very slow processes.”

calvino-wintersI was rather charmed by a short transcript included in the collage, Calvino’s “Thoughts Before an Interview” – perhaps because, as a journalist, I’m usually on the other side of the microphone. Calvino again: “this afternoon . . . the interviewers . . . I do not know if I will have the time to prepare. I could try to improvise but I believe an interview needs to be prepared ahead of time to sound spontaneous. Rarely does an interviewer ask questions you did not expect. I have given a lot of interviews and I have concluded that the questions always look alike. I could always give the same answers. But I believe I have to change my answers because with each interview something has changed either inside myself or in the world. An answer that was right the first time may not be right again the second. This could be the basis of a book. I am given a list of questions, always the same; every chapter would contain the answers I would give at different times. The changes would contain the answers I would give at different times. The changes would then become the itinerary, the story that the protagonist lives. Perhaps in this way I could discover some truths about myself.”

And yet… and yet… I can’t believe Calvino was asked this before: “Are novelists liars? And if they are not, what kind of truth do they tell?” Calvino’s answer:

Novelists tell that piece of truth hidden at the bottom of every lie. To a psychoanalyst it is not so important whether you tell the truth or a lie because lies are as interesting, eloquent, and revealing as any claimed truth.

I feel suspicious about writers who claim to tell the whole truth about themselves, about life, or about the world. I prefer to stay with the truths I find in writers who present themselves as the most bold-faced liars. My goal in writing If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, a novel entirely based on fantasy, was to find in this way a truth that I would have not been able to find otherwise.

Orwell Watch #26: “And who’s he when he’s at home?” New names for terrorist organizations.

Sunday, September 21st, 2014

Not laughing.

I learned in one of my Chinese classes at the University of Michigan – was it philosophy before the Han Dynasty? Or the survey of Chinese poetry? – how important names were in ancient Chinese culture, a mystical forecasting the destiny and inner traits of the child. I learned from Robert Alter that when the angels told Abraham he would have a son with Sarah, he fell on the floor laughing (and his wife laughed, too, a little more discreetly). After all, he was 100 and she 90 years old. Hence, their child was named Isaac, a transliteration of the Hebrew term Yiṣḥāq which literally means “He laughs/will laugh.” Names meant something back in those days.

Today’s Middle Eastern world doesn’t quite have the hang of this custom, for the new group of thugs terrorizing the region re-baptize themselves every other day – first ISIS, then ISIL, then IS, then the Islamic Caliphate.  Who can keep track of it all?  Apparently, they are unhappy with the monikers, discarding them one after another, like a 16-year-old Valley Girl trying on jeans in an Abercrombie and Fitch fitting room. May I join the party and do the same? I think I need a new title, too. From now on, I think I shall call myself the Pearly Queen, and you are all the Book Haven’s subjects (don’t applaud, just throw money). It seems the perfect moment to renew our long-lapsed Orwell Watch, in this case for the abusive manipulation of language for political ends.


The new me.

The Associated Press desperately tried to get on top of the history, not realizing that the terrorists were making it up as they go along – each name more grandiose, promising more legitimacy than the previous one: “In July, the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced its rebranding. He declared that the territory under his control would be part of a caliphate, or an Islamic state, shortening its name from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL — the acronym used by the Obama administration and the British Foreign Office to this day. The Levant can refer to all countries bordering on the eastern Mediterranean, from Greece to Egypt.” The story added: “The inconsistency, while confusing for some, has not deterred the group’s growing exposure on social media, with so many hashtags, posts and tweets ultimately directing readers and viewers to their news.”

Anyway, “Vive la France!” France has always been a nation that takes its language seriously. So seriously, in fact, that Académie Française was established in 1635 to adjudicate the usages, vocabulary, and grammar of the French language, and to publish an official dictionary of the French language. Since then, they have been doing their best to drive out foreign incursions into their Larousse, fiercely rejecting neologisms and Americanisms such as “drugstore,” “cookies,” and “weekend.” The French diet became so dire that in recent decades America had to send them CARE packages with new words in them, parachuting the boxes past the Académie Française gunners.

Such a persnickety people are not going to fall over themselves trying to accommodate terrorists – at least not when it comes to language. According to the Huffington Post here:

The French foreign ministry released a statement earlier this week referencing the Islamic State group as “Daesh.” The new moniker is a transliteration of an acronym of the group’s Arabic name “al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq wa al-Sham. It is also similar to the arabic word that means “to trample.”


And as a reward, we will send them some new words.

France’s foreign minister Laurent Fabius explained that he views the organization as “a terrorist group, not a state.”

“I do not recommend using the term Islamic State because it blurs the lines between Islam, Muslims and Islamists. The Arabs call it ‘Daesh,’ and I will be calling them the ‘Daesh cutthroats,'” Fabius said, according to France 24.

Oh well, “to trample” is a good place to start. I wonder what the correct name for “to behead” or “to crucify” might be? (Fabius in the press conference referred to them as “butchers,” but apparently that name didn’t make the final cut.) Egypt had its own innovation: “Egypt’s top Islamic authority, Grand Mufti Ibrahim Negm, last month called on the international community to refer to the group as ‘al-Qaida separatists’ and not the Islamic State.” It doesn’t end there. In Britain, a group of Muslims in the UK has called on the government to call the group the “UnIslamic State.” How wet. Kind of like calling acetaminophen “non-aspirin.”


Aux armes, citoyens!

Here’s the bad news: the terrorist group is not happy with the French innovation. C’est dommage. According to the AP: “Several residents in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city which fell to the extremist group in June, told The Associated Press that the militants threatened to cut the tongue of anyone who publicly used the acronym Daesh, instead of referring to the group by its full name, saying it shows defiance and disrespect. The residents spoke anonymously out of fear for their safety.”

If all of France uses it, ISIS/ISIL/Daesh/Whatever will have its work cut out for them – that’s 66.03 million people. In any case, the French are pros. They’ve been through the beheading thing before. Vive la France!


Scotland expert Bliss Carnochan: “We’re all Scottish now.”

Friday, September 19th, 2014

Bad case of antisyzygy

The big day arrived. Scotland voted on a referendum deciding whether to declare independence from the United Kingdom or stick together. My own thoughts turned to Stanford’s Scotland expert, and I wondered how he might be faring. We’ve written about Bliss Carnochan and his book Scotland the Brave here and here. We dropped him a sympathetic line to ask for his thoughts on this momentous occasion.

He replied within an hour or so, long before the votes were tallied and much faster than I was expecting:

“On the front page of the Financial Times today is a very large headline and, below, an image of the Scottish flag, the Saltire, against a background of clouds and atmospheric effects.  The headline: BEAUTY AND TERROR GRIP A NATION POISED ON THE BRINK OF HISTORY.


Good case of Laphroaig

“The acres of coverage produced by the independence vote have been astonishing, as if the fate of the world depended on this decision by a small nation, five million people only.  The question of Quebec’s independence produced nothing like this.  No doubt more is at stake here, political, economic, otherwise. But I think Scottish identity-fever, shared by many who have little or no Scottish blood, adds its share to the apocalyptic vision of beauty and terror.  We’re all Scottish now, anxious about our true identity.

“In Scotland the Brave, I wondered whether a yes vote might diminish the creativity (and the enmity to England) of so much Scottish thought – a perverse reason to vote no, which I’d probably do if I had a vote. Having voted no, then I’d probably wish I could have a second chance.  Being a Scot, even five generations back, leaves me of divided mind.  It’s what Hugh MacDiarmid called the “Caledonian antisyzygy.”

According to Wikipedia, “The term Caledonian Antisyzygy refers to the ‘idea of dueling polarities within one entity’, thought of as typical for the Scottish psyche and literature. It was first coined by G. Gregory Smith in his 1919 book Scottish Literature: Character and Influence …” Read MacDiarmid’s poetic take on it is here.

Now here’s the hard part to figure out. The ballot is pictured below left. It’s said to be the simplest ballot evah. So how did Scotland wind up with 3,261 rejected ballots, which were indecipherable? What’s to screw up?



As the votes were counted well into the night, and the nays were in the lead, Bliss emailed me again: “Good: the bad guys have it. Oh dear: the good guys lost. Looks like it will be Scotland v. England forever.  But can somebody explain why Shetland, Orkney & the Western Isles all said no??”

As for me, I poured a wee draught of Laphroaig to toast the Scots as we rolled past midnight, and were still awaiting the vote from the Highlands. Laphraoig’s own isle of Islay in the Argyll and Bute region had voted “no” by 58.52%. I had to agree with Paul Krugman and the other nay-sayers about the economic and political catastrophe that was likely to ensue had the referendum passed. Had the “yes” vote won, I would have had to head down to the nearest BevMo to stockpile Laphroaig while the price was still within reason, to make sure I had the comfort of Scottish peat within the confines of my home, come what may in the world at large.


What is a classic? Italo Calvino gives 14 definitions.

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

calvino-classics“Calvino was not a writer of hits; he was a writer of classics.” So wrote Italo Calvino‘s translator, William Weaver (we wrote about the humble translator here). But that brings us quickly to the question: What is a classic, anyway? Calvino’s 1991 book Why Read the Classics? was assembled after the author’s 1985 death; the author had intended to compile something of the sort himself, but didn’t live to see the project to fruition. He begins with 14 thoughtful assertions:

1.  The classics are those books about which you usually hear people saying: ‘I’m rereading…’, never ‘I’m reading….’

2.  The Classics are those books which constitute a treasured experience for those who have read and loved them; but they remain just as rich an experience for those who reserve the chance to read them for when they are in the best condition to enjoy them.

3.  The classics are books which exercise a particular influence, both when they imprint themselves on our imagination as unforgettable, and when they hide in the layers of memory disguised as the individual’s or the collective unconscious.

4.  A classic is a book which with each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.

5.  A classic is a book which even when we read it for the first time gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.

6.  A classic is a book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.

7.  The classics are those books which come to us bearing the aura of previous interpretations, and trailing behind them the traces they have left in the culture or cultures (or just in the languages and customs) through which they have passed.

8.  A classic is a work which constantly generates a pulviscular cloud of critical discourse around it, but which always shakes the particles off.

9.  Classics are books which, the more we think we know them through hearsay, the more original, unexpected, and innovative we find them when we actually read them.

10.  A classic is the term given to any book which comes to represent the whole universe, a book on a par with ancient talismans.

11.  ‘Your’ classic is a book to which you cannot remain indifferent, and which helps you define yourself in relation or even in opposition to it.

12.  A classic is a work that comes before other classics; but those who have read other classics first immediately recognize its place in the genealogy of classic works.

13.  A classic is a work which relegates the noise of the present to a background hum, which at the same time the classics cannot exist without.

14.  A classic is a work which persists as a background noise even when a present that is totally incompatible with it holds sway.

The New York Review of Books published Calvino’s elaboration of these comments in 1986 – it’s here.

Seamus Heaney, Zbigniew Herbert, and Apollo in one evening…

Monday, September 15th, 2014

In English, s’il vous plaît…

A Polish friend and blogger, Artur Sebastian Rosman, sent me this youtube clip of the Irish Nobel poet Seamus Heaney reading the poems of Zbigniew Herbert. We’ve written about Seamus here and here and here, and Herbert here and here and here – and my visit with Herbert’s cat Szu-Szu in Warsaw is discussed here.

Artur considers Herbert’s satirical poem about labor conditions in Poland during the 1960s, “Report from Paradise” here, along with a few theological peregrinations. Poet and translator Stanisław Barańczak noted that in Herbert’s poem, even heaven has been “degraded into a social utopia, a sort of fairy-tale socialism,” in which the only solution, in Herbert’s words, is “to mix a grain of the absolute with a grain of clay.”



This reading, however, begins with Herbert’s famous and devastating (to me) poem, “Apollo and Marsyas,” and ends his Seamus’s own sonnet on the Polish poet’s death, in which Apollo also figures. Frankly, I’ve never been able to think of Apollo in quite the same way after reading Herbert’s poem. A bit of a brute…well, more than a bit.

Anyway, here’s Seamus’s 2008 reading at the Irish Writers’ Centre in Dublin. Like it? There’s more: Part One of the reading is here and Part Two is here.


Robert Harrison under a hail of cyber-bullets: “Children of Silicon Valley” revisited

Sunday, September 14th, 2014

Ready, aim …

Robert Pogue Harrison‘s “Children of Silicon Valley” is still making waves, as I rather suspected it would when I wrote about his New York Review of Books piece in “Robert Pogue Harrison socks it to Silicon Valley” over here. But now his Silicon Valley critique has leapt across the Atlantic, and is stirring things up in Germany, where it was published in translation by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (here) and in Italy’s Corriere della Sera (alas, no link, just paper). The two newspapers are sometimes called the New York Times of their respective nations.

So what did people have to say? Not much at NYRB, to my surprise; the responses were verbose and not particularly insightful. On the whole, the techie world seemed to come up with the most informed responses, even when one mischaracterized Robert this way: “Those people are really angry, they are frustrated and angry and pissed off that nobody told them that when the nerds reshaped the tools of the world into something they liked better, there [sic] choice to ignore nerds would leave them badly under equipped to live in that world.” Don’t worry, Chuck McM, whoever you are, Robert has just returned from an extended trip to Italy, has a new book coming out soon, and is doing just fine!

Another reply over at Hacker News from dkarapetyan: “Silicon Valley is no longer changing anything. I don’t know if this was ever the case but the reason I started learning about computers and the theory of computation in general was because I saw it as a way of empowering people and giving them a means of achieving their own goals. This is no longer the case. I see very few companies that are using technology with that intention or building something with that goal in mind. All I see are ways of tricking people into clicking on ads or tricking them into doing free work by giving them tokens, e.g. Yelp. This isn’t to say that technologists are entirely to blame but they played a large role in disempowering an entire generation by giving them gimped tools that were meant more for control than empowerment. Why the hell do I need to know what ‘rooting’ a device means if I want to fully utilize all its capabilities. What is the point of locking down a general purpose computing machine if not for control.”


Are we becoming … boring?

Countering one reader’s claim that “Universal mobile connectivity is huge. Instant access to the world’s information is huge. Instant access to each other is huge,” dkarapetyan wrote again: “Instant access to each other we’ve basically had since email and text messaging and that hasn’t changed. What has changed is business capitalizing on those connections to make money, i.e. Zuckerberg repackaging the internet as Facebook. I don’t really know why you say geolocation is huge. I like my GPS but I can get around just fine without it. It might be huge in terms of government’s ability to spy on me though. Maybe I’m a little too cynical but none of what you brought up changes the fact that all the tools and services we make available to people are more a means of oppression and control than they are as a lever that they can use to move the world. Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, etc. are all toys for teenagers. Google and other mega corps are information silos with secretive operations and basically black boxes that print money.”

“Technology should be used to distribute power and wealth but instead it is used more and more every day to concentrate it in fewer and fewer hands. Financial sector you mentioned being an excellent example of such use.”

Over at Union Square Ventures, Nick Grossman considered Robert’s remark, “Our silicon age, which sees no glory in maintenance, but only in transformation and disruption…” He wrote: “That one makes me think. On the one hand, it’s true – disruptive innovation is about abandoning the idea of fixing/maintenance in favor of building new. On the other hand, the ‘architecture of the internet’ is extraordinarily maintenance-friendly – layering and open protocols make it possible to swap out/fix/improve the components of the network like never before.” He doesn’t get it. He is thinking of software, not civilization, and thinking in terms of months and not years, let alone decades and centuries.

Is it a good witch, or a bad witch?

Is it a good witch, or a bad witch?

Robert had written, “Becoming a boring human being is the fate of most people who keep the tech economy’s lights burning deep into the night. These industries may be among the most vibrant and dynamic in the world, yet those inside the hive are among the most tedious people in the room, endlessly plugging into their prosthetic devices.” The responses from people who countered that they knew “lively,” “articulate,” “interesting” computer folks with “hobbies” are disquieting. I was struck by the lack of metaphysical aspiration.

Many no longer seem to know what a profound person looks and sounds like. I’ve been honored to know a handful, but from the responses I’ve read, I get the feeling that most people haven’t met any. By which I mean the people who have changed the course of my life, not merely entertained me. I hesitate to elaborate, because I feel like I’m speaking in an ancient tongue, as if I were typing these thoughts out in WordStar 3.0 and not in WordPress, or responding to a TV gameshow in archaic Greek. How to define? (“Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external,/The light less public and the meaning of life/Something more than a mad camp…”) Let’s start with a quality of being, not merely a lists of accomplishments or degrees, and consider wisdom rather than knowledge. Then add a varied mixture of suffering, conscience, self-knowledge, choices and the enduring payment for those choices, all fermented over time, time, time. But that’s only the starter kit. It gets deeper. You won’t find anything like it in the internet chatter.


Belly of the Beast.