Kurt Vonnegut’s A Man without a Country is turning into something of a surprise success thanks to prominent TV appearances and the fact that his essays appear to strike a chord with many Americans. From today’s AP story: “The book has reached the top 10 on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com, and publisher Seven Stories Press has already more than doubled its first printing, from 50,000 copies to 110,000.” Vonnegut has also taken the opportunity to remark on the onset of old age: “He jokes, sort of, that he has ‘lived too long’ and wishes he had been finished off by a fire at his home a few years ago, from which he escaped unharmed. ‘When Hemingway killed himself he put a period at the end of his life; old age is more like a semicolon,’ Vonnegut said with a wheezy laugh worthy of a long-term chain smoker.”
I can’t believe I’ve never mentioned this: My landlord is the moderately famous French philosopher and Columbia University professor, Sylvere Lotringer. He co-wrote a book with Paul Verilio called Pure War, and gave us each copies when we signed the lease. He is married to Chris Kraus a novelist/filmmaker from New Zealand/Germany. Just now he called to talk about the plumber.
Unwholesomely, my “office” is the campus studio apartment where I also eat and sleep, and there are more days than I’d like when I don’t leave it at all. Today was such a day – and for all my self-cloistering, it was a day of little progress on my wretched heap of dissertation. And this reminds me of a passage from Jonathan Swift’s Tale of a Tub:Whatever Reader desires to have a thorow Comprehension of an Author’s Thoughts, cannot take a better Method, than by putting himself into the Circumstances and Postures of Life, that the Writer was in, upon every important Passage as it flow’d from his Pen; For this will introduce a Parity and strict Correspondence of Idea’s between the Reader and the Author. Now, to assist the diligent Reader in so delicate an Affair, as far as brevity will permit, I have recollected, that the shrewdest Pieces of this Treatise, were conceived in Bed, in a Garret: At other times (for a Reason best known to my self) I thought fit to sharpen my Invention with Hunger; and in general, the whole Work was begun, continued, and ended, under a long Course of Physick, and a great want of Money.I offer this miscellany of shards from my lost day:Coyahoga: Not just a nonsense word made up by R.E.M. (Buckeyes are laughing at me): it is the Iroquois name of a winding Ohio river that feeds into Lake Erie and had a nasty habit of catching on fire in the first half of the twentieth century (a fact that seems to have been a spur to the environmentalist movement).The iTunes Essentials 1989: Neneh Cherry’s “Buffalo Stance”. White Lion’s “When the Children Cry”. Oh, and more (Martika – Roxette – Phil Collins). Quite the walk down memory lane for those who remember the San Francisco Earthquake interrupting the World Series at Candlestick Park, the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and the Berlin Wall coming down.Hillsborough disaster: Another from 1989, but across the pond: 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death at Hillsborough stadium during an FA cup match between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Investigations of the incident have never fully explained how the crush happened. I’ve been watching the British crime drama “Cracker”, starring Robbie Coltrain (the actor who plays Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies) and Christopher Eccleston, and one of its episodes was almost impossible to follow without background on Hillsborough.The death of Orpheus: Considered by the ancients the first among poets and musicians, Orpheus was said to charm beasts and fish with his song, and even to make rocks and trees dance. With his music he could restore Edenic harmony to the natural world, and through the Renaissance he was a sort culture hero – a benevolent, civilizing influence – a mythic bringer of tranquility and joy. After the death of his wife Eurydice, Orpheus took a vow of chastity. The Maenads, a group of women votaries of Bacchus, saw Orpheus and, taken with his beauty, wanted him to join in their Bacchanalian orgies. Orpheus refused and they tore him limb from limb. His head washed up on the shores of Lesbos, and so the people of that island were said to be endowed with the gift of song. (There’s a great John William Waterhouse painting of two nymphs finding Orpheus’ head.) Swift refers to this death by dismemberment in The Tale, and Milton, in “Lycidas“, describes Orpheus as he,Whom Universal nature did lament, [ 60 ]When by the rout that made the hideous roar,His goary visage down the stream was sent,Down the swift Hebrus to the Lesbian shore.Such are the disastrous fragments of my day.
The BBC is offering limited online access to the OED as part of a BBC miniseries on the famous (and famously huge) dictionary. Unfortunately, it’s only available until February 13, and according to Boing Boing they are trying to limit access to Brits only. However, you may want to try to get in, because I managed to access it from here in Chicago. (I emailed Cory at Boing Boing to suggest that perhaps the restrictions had been lifted, but he chalked it up to the fact that “IP-based filters genuinely suck.”) At any rate, considering the astronomical cost of the OED, it’s worth a try to check it out while it’s free.Update: More details at Language Hat.
My wife and I are moving out of the apartment we’ve rented for the last five years and into another apartment in the same neighborhood. The onerous task of culling through our books has fallen to me – perhaps justly, since I’m the one who collected most of the damned things in the first place. My goal is to discard at least two boxes. I’ve been struck, though, by the number of books on my shelves that I found among other people’s discards.Indeed, hardly a day goes by in Brooklyn that I don’t see a box of cast-off books sitting on a stoop or by a curb, with a “Free – Take Me” sign, or (once) a glow-stick casting its alien light over the offerings. The entire borough, viewed from a certain angle, is like a great rotating library: you take my copy of Mules and Men, I’ll relieve you of your Sense and Sensibility.What follows, in no particular order, is a catalogue of the 30 books I’ve apparently taken from other people’s stoops over the last five years: a sort of portrait of a certain time and place. I’d be curious to hear about your own finds in the comments box below.Baker, Nicholson: Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, The End of CivilizationAckerman, Diane: A Natural History of the SensesMaugham, W. Somerset: The Razor’s EdgeElizabethan Plays (a 1933 anthology; no author)Heidegger, Martin: Being and Time (trans. Macquarrie & Robinson)Baldassare Castiglione: The Book of the CourtierGarcia Lorca, Frederico: Three PlaysBréton, André, ed.: What is Surrealism?Tsvetaeva, Marina: Selected PoemsMitchell, David: GhostwrittenHarvey, David: Spaces of HopeGrimm, Jacob and Wilhelm: Fairy TalesPinter, Harold: The Proust ScreenplayMarlowe, Christopher: Plays and PoemsWoolf, Virginia: Essays, vol. IIFaludi, Susan: Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American WomenMerot, Pierre: MammalsPope, Alexander: The Rape of the LockReed, Lou: Rock & Roll Heart (okay, it’s a VHS tape, but still pretty cool)Marcuse, Herbert: One-Dimensional ManCalvino, Italo: Italian FolktalesThompson, Willie: Postmodernism and HistoryCocteau, Jean: Five PlaysAmis, Martin: Visiting Mrs. NabokovGibbon, Edward: Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. IVBissell, Tom: God Lives in St. PetersburgCalasso, Roberto: KaPortis, Charles: NorwoodDidion, Joan: MiamiSt. Augustine: The City of God[Image credit: steelight]
If Carl Jung had lived to see Google Search, he might have had a thing or two to say about how its auto suggest function is revealing the Internet’s collective unconscious. For those who don’t know, auto suggest is a handy feature that helps you search when you don’t know what it is you’re searching for. As you type, Google tries to read your mind, offering helpful suggestions based on the letters you have already entered. If, for example, you were to type “the mill” Google might guess you are searching for “the millions” (you were, weren’t you?) and helpfully add the term to a list that appears below the search bar. On the other hand, it might suggest “the million dollar man.” We do, after all, have the technology.
Although it’s not entirely clear how Google generates suggestions, they are at least in part based on searches entered by other users. The more popular a search, the more likely it is to appear at the top of the list of suggestions. At first, this might seem like an innocuous feature, but on closer inspection, it turns out to be a powerful tool for peering into the murky depths of the collective unconscious. How murky, you ask? For a peek into the abyss, head over to autocompleteme (may be NSFW, if you can believe it….), where a team from among the legion of unsung Internet heroes has posted some of the bizarre treasures they have dredged up from Google’s auto suggest.
A quick peek at autocompleteme can tell you a lot about the state of the English-speaking world circa 2009. We’re stupid: “How come… a cupcake is not a mineral?”, paranoid “how to tell… your cat is planning to kill you?” and racist “I am… extremely afraid of Chinese people.” Its pages are full of bizarre, hilarious, and sometimes disturbing searches that are apparently so popular that Google assumes you, too, might find them useful. Of course, any number of the oddest results might just point to song lyrics, elaborate practical jokes, random hipster t-shirt slogans, and Simpsons quotes.
That’s all beside the point, though. Because what makes auto suggest most compelling is not the nonsense results or the unintentional comedy. It’s what it says about the human condition. Every day hundreds of millions of supplicants come to Google, the new Oracle, in search of answers. From innocence ( “how to… kiss”) to despondence (“I w… ant to die.”), they share their fantasies and desires, their deepest fears and anxieties. And every day, Google suggest lets them know they are not alone.
Last time I was at the book store I noticed an interesting cultural history sort of book called Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. The “city” is, of course, New York City and the book uses rats as a vehicle to explore the New York’s intricacies and tribulations. The author of the book, Robert Sullivan, is known for his quirky, narrative-based non-fictions, The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt. If you’re into the whole rat thing check out this Newsday journalist’s account of an evening spent “ratting” with Sullivan. From rats to elephants: during my daily travels the other day I caught an interview with the author of an interesting-sounding book on one of the local public radio shows. Hiding the Elephant: How Magicians Invented the Impossible and Learned to Disappear is a history of the magic act written by a master magician, Jim Steinmeyer. The book describes the origins of tricks that have become magic cliches, like sawing a lady in half. He also seeks to describe the interesting blend of mystery, showmanship, and hucksterism that embodied the turn of the century magic show. Finally, I mentioned the other day the centennial of the birth of Dr. Suess. It turns out that there is a sturdy coffee table book to commemorate this event. It displays his life and work and bears the somewhat dubious title: The Seuss, the Whole Seuss and Nothing But the Seuss.