1. The Catalog of Nibru (Various, circa 21st to 20th Centuries B.C.)
I, the king, was a hero already in the womb
I am a king treated with respect
Not only did the lord make the world appear in its correct form
Lady of all the divine powers
These lines, inscribed in clay in Sumerian during the Third Dynasty of Ur, were initially confusing to the American archaeologists who around 1900 uncovered them from the ruins of the city of Nibru, or Nippur, in contemporary Iraq. They appeared to be poems, or the Sumerian equivalent of poems, but none cohered, or cohered as completely as the 40,000 or so other texts excavated from the area. And so the 62 lines of this incomprehensible tablet—of this intact yet stylistically fragmented tablet—were set aside, as the more formally explicable texts were decoded. In the course of that decoding, however, the same lines kept cropping up—as first lines: “I, the king, was a hero already in the womb” was the first line of a poem in praise of Shulgi; “I am a king treated with respect” was the first line of a poem in praise of Lipit-Ishtar; “Not only did the lord make the world appear in its correct form” was a song for hoeing; “Lady of all the divine powers” was a hymn to the love goddess Inana. This led scholars to conclude that this mysterious cuneiform slab was no avant-garde Gilgamesh (whose earliest version was also unearthed at Nibru), but a bibliography or curriculum—an index of the Sumerian canon intended for reference, or instruction. Literature began with the list: Online just made the links palpable.
2. The Talmud (Various, circa 200 A.D. to Present)
A commentary on commentaries: a book divided into books, or tractates, whose every page is divided among debates about Jewish law (Mishnah, 200 A.D.), debates about the debates (Gemarah, 500 A.D.), the glosses of the 12th-century French rabbi Rashi (in a strip down one margin), and over six centuries of tosafot, which are glosses on Rashi’s glosses (in a strip down the opposite margin). Interspersed text blocks can feature extracts from legal codices by Maimonides (12th-century Egypt), Nachmanides (13th-century Spain), Joseph Caro (16th-century Palestine), and Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, aka the Vilna Gaon (18th-century Polish Lithuania). To speak of the Talmud is to speak of a multiplicity-seeking syncretism, a jurisprudential pullulation: a work that intermixes Aramaic and Hebrew and exists in two forms (the earlier Jerusalem Talmud, the later Babylonian Talmud), each of which has appeared in disparate editions, with dissenting annotations and addenda. The Talmud’s ultimate interpretive difficulty, however, inheres in the fact that for over a millennium, its primary “text” had been overwhelmingly oral—commandments communicated face-to-face before being transcribed.
3. The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing, by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (circa 820 A.D.)
A book from Baghdad, written by a Persian astronomer and mathematician credited with the introduction of what we now call Arabic numerals to Europe. Al-Khwarizmi’s Arabic treatise, which is known to us solely through its 12th-century Latin translation by Robert of Chester, delineates two ways of solving quadratic equations: the first by means of completion, or the movement of negative terms from one side of an equation to the other; the second by means of balancing, or the cancelation of equal terms on both sides of an equation. “The balancing” was al-muqabala; “the completion” was al-gabr, whose transliteration into “algebra” was relatively logical when compared with the Latinate corruption of its creator’s name: from al-Khwarizmi to Algoritmi—source of the modern “algorithm.” By proposing the abstraction or transposition of all quantities into a representative language, al-Khwarizmi founded a method by which all extant mathematical disciplines could communicate. His immediate concerns, though, were more mundane, as his treatise concludes by turning theory to practice and, like the search engines that continue its work today, becomes preoccupied with mercantile transactions: “A man is hired to work in a vineyard for thirty days for 10 dinars. He works six days. How much of the agreed price should he receive?”
4. Summa Theologica, by Thomas Aquinas (1265–74)
“It seems that those who see the essence of God see all things in God. For Gregory [of Nyssa] says: ‘What do they not see, who see Him Who sees all things?’ But God sees all things. Therefore those who see God see all things. … Further, whoever sees a mirror, sees what is reflected in the mirror. But all actual or possible things shine forth in God as in a mirror; for He knows all things in Himself. Therefore whoever sees God, sees all actual things in Him, and also all possible things. … Further, whoever understands the greater, can understand the least, as Aristotle says. But all that God does, or can do, are less than His essence. Therefore whoever understands God, can understand all that God does, or can do. … Further, the rational creature naturally desires to know all things. Therefore if in seeing God it does not know all things, its natural desire will not rest satisfied; thus, in seeing God it will not be fully happy, which is incongruous. Therefore he who sees God knows all things.” Use the Ctrl key to find and replace “God” with “Google,” “Apple,” or the “Five Eyes” (the United States, U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand: the five nations that share signals intelligence), throughout.
5. Index Librorum Prohibitorum (First Edition 1559, Final Edition 1948)
A book necessitated by books: Gutenberg’s invention stilled the copyist’s hand, and ensured that texts were no longer the exclusive possessions of the aristocracy and Church. The democratization, along with the secularization, of “content,” suggested the establishment of institutional controls—if governments and ecclesiastical bodies had ceased to be the primary sources of reading material, they could at least license the printers who were, and regulate the materials they published. The first edition of the Vatican’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum—Index of Prohibited Books—was superintended by Pope Paul IV, and blacklisted over 500 works for reasons not just of heresy or blasphemy, but also of anticlericalism and obscenity; further, it set rules regarding book distribution that curtailed the influx of illicit texts from outside the Holy See’s dominion. The Index’s second edition, authorized by the Council of Trent and so referred to as the Tridentine Index, relaxed the standards of its predecessor, in that it distinguished between books to ban, and books merely to censor, and was more forgiving toward scientific works, except for those by Protestants. Taken in all its editions, the Index was both a guide to the evil opinions of heliocentrists (Kepler and Newton), pantheists (Bruno and Spinoza), Romantics (Balzac and Zola), and fascists (Alfred Rosenberg and Gabriele D’Annunzio), as well as a registry of the occulted holdings of the Vatican Library, which was required to obtain a copy of every book it proscribed. Paul VI abolished the Index in 1966—and in doing so appended it to another Index: that of Church books the Church has repudiated. Still, the list lives on, and has now been made searchable, at beaconforfreedom.org.
6. Epistolae Ho-Elianae, by James Howell (1645–55)
An all-over-the-map, four-volume autobiography—which, because it’s semifictionalized, and because it’s written as correspondence, qualifies it for the distinction of the first epistolary novel in English—Epistolae Ho-Elianae is more regularly referred to by its more regular title, Familiar Letters. Its Anglo-Welsh author, Howell, was arguably the first English-language author to earn his living solely from writing. He was the quintessential freelance, producing histories, political tracts, polyglot dictionaries, and wisdom miscellanies (English Proverbs, 1659, noted: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”). The variety of Howell’s interests—and the variety of his pre-freelance writing employment: as a tutor of and secretary to the nobility, and as the traveling representative of a glass manufacturer—accounts for the varied settings of his Letters (Germany, Italy, Poland, prison), and the varied nature of Letters’ addressees (family, friends, ambassadors of the British Crown, fellow belletristic hacks, and chummy sea captains encountered along the way). The only aggregating premise to this P.O. box of prose is Howell’s naive but endearing conviction that life and writing were synonymous and that everything that ever happened to him deserved to be written down. Beyond that: that everything that ever happened to him deserved to be communicated (published).
7. Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift (1726)
A “projector,” to Johnson’s Dictionary, is “one who forms schemes,” and, in its second definition, “one who forms wild impracticable schemes.” In Lagado, capital of Balnibarbi, Lemuel Gulliver is given a tour of the Academy of Projectors, an organization dedicated to “putting all Arts, Sciences, Languages, and Mechanics upon a new Foot.” Which is to say, dedicated to putting them onto, or through, a computer, with which “the most ignorant Person at a reasonable Charge, and with a little bodily Labour, may write books in Philosophy, Poetry, Politicks, Law, Mathematicks, and Theology, without the least Assistance from Genius or Study.” Gulliver relates: “It was twenty Foot Square, placed in the middle of the Room. The Superficies was composed of several bits of Wood, about the bigness of a Die, but some larger than others. They were all linked together by slender Wires. These bits of Wood were covered on every Square with Paper pasted on them, and on these Papers were written all the Words of their Language, in their several Moods, Tenses, and Declensions, but without any Order. The Professor then desired me to observe, for he was going to set his Engine at Work. The Pupils at his Command took each of them hold of an Iron Handle, whereof there were forty fixed round the Edges of the Frame, and giving them a sudden turn, the whole Disposition of the Words was entirely changed. He then commanded six and thirty of the Lads to read the several Lines softly as they appeared upon the Frame; and where they found three or four Words together that might make part of a Sentence, they dictated to the four remaining Boys who were Scribes. This Work was repeated three or four times, and at every turn the Engine was so contrived, that the Words shifted into new places, as the square bits of Wood moved upside down.”
8. The Telephone Directory, Connecticut District Telephone Company (1878)
In 1877, an inventor from New Haven named George Coy witnessed a telephone demonstration by Alexander Graham Bell and immediately went about founding the Connecticut District Telephone Company—the world’s first commercial telephone exchange. In 1878, the company published its first directory—neither a white pages nor a yellow pages, just a single sheet of stiff cardboard. The company’s 50 subscribers were listed only by name. Numbers weren’t required or even useful: An operator connected, and was privy to, all calls. The second edition of the directory, published a year later, was a bound affair, listing nearly 400 names, alongside directions for telephone operation, guidelines for telephone etiquette, an advertisement for Watkin’s Automatic Signal Telegraph (a business that took telegrams via telephone dictation), and informative essays on “Progress in Electric Lighting” and “The Microphone.”
9. “Statistical Mechanics and Irreversibility,” by Émile Borel (1913)
Not the first version of Swift’s scenario (which has also been imagined by Leibniz, Pascal, Cicero, and Aristotle), but the first to involve singes dactylographes—“typing monkeys.” Borel, the French probabilist, cracks his knuckles: “Let us imagine that a million monkeys have been trained to strike the keys of a typewriter at random, and that … these typist monkeys work eagerly ten hours a day on a million typewriters of various kinds. … And at the end of a year, these volumes turn out to contain the exact texts of the books of every sort and every language found in the world’s richest libraries.” The implication being that, given enough monkeys, typewriters, paper, and time, even Borel’s sentences are destined to be written again, as is this sentence, and so on.
10. The Foundation Pit, by Andrei Platonov (1930)
“To change the world”: Half a century before this became the sanctimonious mantra of Silicon Valley, it was the violent imperative of Soviet Russia. Platonov’s darkling novel concerns a pit being dug to accommodate the foundations of a vast residential tower that will ultimately shelter the entire population of an anonymous city in the USSR. Once the tower is finished, all the people’s former dwellings will be destroyed. “And after ten or twenty years, another engineer would construct a tower in the middle of the world, and the laborers of the entire terrestrial globe would be settled there for a happy eternity. With regard to both art and expediency, Prushevsky could already foresee what kind of composition of static mechanics would be required in the center of the world, but he could not foresense the psychic structure of the people who would settle the shared home amid this plan—and still less could he imagine the inhabitants of the future tower amid the universal earth. What kind of body would youth have then? What agitating force would set the heart beating and the mind thinking?”
Excerpted from Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction by Joshua Cohen. Copyright © 2018 by Joshua Cohen. Published with permission from Random House, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC. All Rights Reserved.
“It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” –Joan Didion
It becomes palpable in late spring, when I receive a pair of unconditional offers posted first-class Royal Mail. I give ample notice at work; I make a little list of things I “haven’t done yet,” as though I am permanently relocating to the moon and will never again have the opportunity to ride the Staten Island Ferry; I chart out the furniture I need to sell, making guesses at how much cash I might collect as I disassemble my life. The days slip by and summer stutters in, blisteringly hot at first, then endless weeks of rain. (Half a dozen people say something to the effect of “You’d better get used to this!” often with a wink and a nudge, and I bite my tongue, or sometimes, I don’t, and snap, “The rain in England is not like this,” even though sometimes it actually is. A friend buys me a raincoat — a “parting gift” for the “the precipitation zone you will be heading to” — and I am profoundly grateful.) I begin to get maudlin as I leave certain places, or say goodbye to people at the end of the night. “Will this be the last time I…” The abstract idea that has hovered over me for ages — leaving New York City — sprouts legs and begins to crawl.
I’m headed to University College London in the fall, after one more season taking bets in my hometown, at the Saratoga Racecourse (this summer marks my tenth anniversary as a pari-mutuel clerk). These steps have been charted for a good while now, guided by the gravitational pull of London, a city in which I’ve lived before and a place that always manages to provoke my most extreme emotions, for better or for worse. Before all of that, though, I have to say goodbye to New York, which feels a bit self-indulgent: people change cities, migrate across the globe, uproot their lives every day, and most of them don’t feel compelled to write long essays about moving. But New York, though — maybe it’s the preponderance of writers here, the narcissism and the navel-gazing, that turns our comings and goings into a series of extended metaphors? We document our arrivals and our acclimations, the natural evolution of a human being, growing older — changing in a city that’s often painted as the living embodiment of change. And when we manage to leave, if we manage to leave, escape becomes a genre in and of itself.
Because it often feels like that: escape, like getting out of town is risky, or hard to coordinate, or something that happens just in the nick of time. There are a lot of “leaving New York essays” out there, nearly all of them framed from the vantage of the author’s new location, a place that’s usually less shiny or less gritty, somewhere that’s better in a lot of ways but invariably shadowed by nostalgic regret, maybe a kind of lingering sense of not having “made it” here, whatever that means. They follow a tested formula: you march confidently across the Hudson possessed with extreme naivety, because you are impossibly young when you arrive in New York, no matter your age on paper; you quickly learn the same sorts of hard lessons that people have learned for years on end; you pay a lot and get very little and sharpen your cockroach-killing reflexes; you have moments of startling clarity, as you reference specific street corners or landmarks or bits of cultural currency, paired with embarrassing vocalizations of these moments of clarity. (These references have obviously shifted over the years; right now, it’s often people drinking Tecate on rooftops in Bushwick as the sun sets over the Midtown skyline. For me, in my years working the night shift in a skyscraper in Times Square, it was the Midtown skyline sometime after midnight, from the BQE just above the Kosciuszko Bridge, cemeteries and hulking warehouses shadowed in the foreground and a postcard stretch of light and geometric wonder across the river.)
And then somewhere along the way, it ends. It’s not the day you leave, because if you’re writing this sort of piece, it’s likely that no one is forcing you to go, or you’re not putting up much of a fight. The New York of our imaginations has to end sooner than that — maybe it collapses under the weight of our own preconceptions, or maybe pinning so much responsibility on a city serves to mask the way the passage of time can alter us: when we arrive we are willing and eager to fold ourselves into different shapes, to make ourselves fit, but as we grow older, acts of contortion become more difficult, or at the very least, less desirable. It was always easy enough for me to live here, but my New York lost the vibrancy of the early days pretty quickly; I could hold my folded shape, but the stagnancy chipped away at me over time. People say that New York is a city for the rich, or a city for the young; it is also a city for the new and the bendable.
On Easter Sunday, I box up my books and hesitate as my fingers pass over a well-worn pair of Didion essay collections, the big two, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and The White Album. I am sorting books into three piles: to give away; to send upstate; and to keep around for my final few months in New York, things I know I need to read, my half-dozen favorites, and a few shelves of “emergency books” that I irrationally feel like I might want to reference and need nearby me at all times. Afterwards it looks like the oddest little library — Gulliver’s Travels and Orwell’s essays and Evelyn Waugh’s collected short stories? Why did I keep these things here? Did I think I’d need to peruse How Fiction Works in a pinch? But I remember now, three months later, why I kept the Didions close at hand. In the vast realm of “leaving New York” essays, “Goodbye to All That” says everything that has ever needed to be said — but better.
I bought Slouching Towards Bethlehem in the final weeks of my senior year of college, and I read it during the strange, torpid months that followed. I open it up years later and remember, with some surprise, that those months coincided with my ill-fated experiment in becoming the kind of person who makes notations in books. Flipping through the essays, I see that I was playing fast and loose with the brackets and asterisks, basically rendering the act of marking totally pointless, like highlighting an entire page. I marked some good stuff, but most of it’s good stuff, kind of extraordinary stuff, really. It’s here that I should pause and acknowledge that if there’s anything more tedious than a “leaving New York” essay, it’s a “young girl discovers that Joan Didion has an inside window into her soul” essay. Bear with me for a moment, please.
I can’t help but wonder why “Goodbye to All That” was placed at the very end of the book: chronologically, it belongs at the very beginning — it explains away her twenties, and lays some of the foundations for the woman we find through all the rest, simultaneously fragile and steely, searching for answers under the California sun. Didion in New York is bendable to the point of breaking: it feels so removed from the rest of it, and I suppose, in a real sense, it was: she arrived here at age twenty, in the late fifties; she left eight years later, to return to her native California, as the West Coast was securing its central place in the socio-political history of the decade, and a permanent place in the American cultural imagination. In the final pages of the book we do a bit of a 180, back to Didion’s New York. Even from a distance, across the river and half a century later, the city is so instantly recognizable that it’s startling. I re-read the part about talking to her long-distance boyfriend during the first few days and laugh aloud on a packed train at rush hour. (“I would stay in New York, I told him, just six months, and I could see the Brooklyn Bridge from my window. As it turned out the bridge was the Triborough, and I stayed eight years.”)
There’s a dangerous paradox in writing about your earliest years, about the very beginnings of adulthood. We believe our experiences to be unique but the messages to be universal, and we have a hell of a time trying to strike the right balance, without coming off as narcissistic or arrogant, qualities that look all the harsher when paired with inexperience and immaturity. It’s tricky to avoid whining. The circumstances of my own first year out of school are difficult to quantify, sometimes interesting, sometimes mind-numbingly ordinary: the post-graduation confusion, then a return to my summer job at the track; moving to Edinburgh to work in a t-shirt shop and live in a long-term hostel; moving to San Francisco to take an internship and cobble together rent money with sketchy side gigs; getting a call one day in early July, waiting for cheap sushi in San Francisco’s financial district, that my best friend had been hit by a truck and killed as she was biking to work that morning. I had decided to leave California a few weeks prior; I felt slightly out-of-synch out west, uncomfortable in ways I’d never felt in Scotland, as grim as my life there turned out to be. With loss, priorities can sharpen. I returned east immediately.
If you asked me to explain myself that year, I’m not sure I could. I can outline my movements in plane tickets and bank statements, in e-mail chains and hazily-recalled phone conversations, but I fall victim to that paradox, the simultaneous convictions of uniqueness and universality. I came to New York on the heels of all of this, and those convictions solidified there, as I attempted to lay the foundations of the life I felt I was supposed to lead. Didion describes her own naïve march into New York by addressing the paradox with a kind of unflinching sentimentality:
When I first saw New York I was twenty, and it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already, even in the old Idlewild temporary terminal, and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again. In fact, it never was. Some time later there was a song on all the jukeboxes on the upper East Side that went “but where is the schoolgirl who used to be me,” and if it was late enough at night I used to wonder that. I know now that almost everyone wonders something like that, sooner or later and no matter what he or she is doing, but one of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.
It almost feels like some sleight-of-hand, the way the experiences her twenty-year-old self believes to be singular are cut down by that final sentence. Didion, a pioneer in the school of New Journalism, stretches her years in New York across the city like a broad, welcoming umbrella, inviting all of us underneath to find our own experiences in her early fumblings. “Of course it might have been some other city,” she writes, “had circumstances been different and the time been different and had I been different, might have been Paris or Chicago or even San Francisco, but because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York.” I can’t help but wonder, though; it’s an impossible sentence to counter, after all. I compare my own earliest fumblings to my years in New York — the place where my twenties slipped away, where I worked very hard and got just a little bit in return, where I spent huge swathes of time never setting foot outside the five boroughs (more like three boroughs, actually), where my own cultural assumptions met up with hard realities, where I stopped to marvel at that stretch of the Midtown skyline every single time I passed it — and I think that it couldn’t have been anywhere else. But then, perhaps because I am talking about myself I am talking here about New York.
Everything changes, even people, at least a little bit, and I watched my friends unravel somewhat in New York and then weave themselves into something nearly unrecognizable to me. I am leaving at a pivotal moment: one after another, people I know bid goodbye to their twenties, approaching the time when it feels as though one must choose to escape New York and rebuild elsewhere, or attempt to graduate into a more settled existence, moving in with partners and purchasing real estate and thinking about the future in years, maybe decades, rather than months. I think that those who stay are not choosing the life I’ve known: they are hoping to create something new, or so I assume. All the while, the circle contracts: a good number of my friends, some of the closest, have left town within the past year or two, nearly all of them in the height of summer, making toasts at outdoor goodbye parties as sweat collects at the backs of our knees.
I want to say goodbye properly but I am not quite sure how to manage it. “You’ll be back,” people tell me, at work or out at some party or other, and I think, well, maybe, or better yet: yes and no. Joan Didion, after all, has returned to the Upper East Side. I can come back for certain — though maybe when I win the lottery, because I can barely afford to stay now — but I can’t return to any of this; I lost it some time ago. I suppose that’s why it’s so much easier to say goodbye to the physical space, to the things that give me my daily bearings, than to the alternative: I’ve always been terrible at endings, from my childhood notebooks to the current collection of folders on my desktop littered with unfinished stories and essays, things that are very nearly there, if only I could find the last key piece, some subtle thematic note that could tie it all together.
“Goodbye to All That” takes its title from Robert Graves’s autobiography, Good-Bye to All That, his “bitter leave-taking of England” written in the wake of the First World War. But Didion’s essay, first published in The Saturday Evening Post, was originally titled “Farewell to the Enchanted City,” which I think might suit it better, in some inexplicable way. There’s so much inevitable disappointment wrapped up in the title — nostalgic regret, my absolute go-to when leaving a place. The Enchanted City, the land of outsized expectations. “All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore.” It isn’t hard to live here, for some of us, but maybe it is hard to sort our expectations from our dreams: the horizon is too hazy, blotted out by the skyline.
Months to go, then weeks, and then it is a matter of days. I take stock, and I don’t say much, let alone any real goodbyes. To the physical spaces, my favorite corners: Cadman Plaza just after a thunderstorm, the view up Manhattan Avenue, dashing towards the train at Bryant Park at sunset. To the golden rhythms of the life I’ve known, because I, like Didion, spent my New York years making a magazine: I spend a few weeks working to not feel responsible for these words on these pages, for the publication to whom I’ve sacrificed Friday nights for nearly five years (and a good number of Saturdays, too), for the magazine that’s always been irrevocably wrapped up in my idea of New York, long before I ever stepped foot in the lobby. To my friends, who, if we can manage it, will always be my friends, but never like this again — even if I rushed back tomorrow, the ground has already shifted beneath me. But mostly to the Enchanted City, to the idea of it, how effortlessly it formed in my mind, and how it can disappear in an instant, when your back is turned. Someone else, somewhere, is arriving right now, marching across the Hudson: picking it back up, and falling in love with New York City for the first time, too.
Image via Sakeeb Sabakka/Flickr
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about attention atrophy and the Internet. And I mean a lot of talk. If you haven’t noticed, it’s because some of the trend pieces are really long (like, 2,000 words long) and your gchat may have been buzzing at a clip that precluded sustained focus on what a given writer for the The Atlantic, Slate, or The New York Times had to say about the latest UCLA study on how Google can affect your dorsolateral prefrontal cortex.
Entering freshmen at the university where I teach are required to read Nicholas Carr’s Pulitzer-finalist The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. It clocks in at 280 pages, and most students will not finish it.
I’ve got nothing against the hand-wringers — idle hands, etc. — but I’d like to advance a modest defense of the good that can come from the browser’s mindset, and from inattentive dilettantism. Indeed, let me suggest that we can find solace for the dilemma not in studies showing that video games make you smarter, but rather in Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, a long, obstreperous 18th-century work that Virginia Woolf (author of short, prismatic 20th-century works) called “the greatest of all novels.” Shandy makes the Cervantes/Fielding/Dickens picaresque look like a straight walk down a well-lit road. It is both a challenge to read and a sustained work of jumpy, distracted hilarity. Attention deficit, for Sterne, is not something to be feared in the reader — it is the basis for his process of composition.
A précis of Shandy is more or less impossible, and tempts Shandean distractions of its own. Nonetheless: the title character wishes to write his memoirs. (The why is unclear, though an encyclopedic impulse runs in the family — Shandy senior has written tracts on the naming of children; pseudo-Descartian meditations on the pineal gland; a discourse on the importance of proper balance between “radical heat and radical moisture” in the human animal — you get the idea.) Along the way, everything goes wrong, both in the writing and the living. A mis-wound clock distracts his parents at the moment of his conception; a scullery maid’s malapropism results in his absurd, medieval first name; the memoirist himself becomes so distracted that he does not emerge from the womb until the novel is one-third done. Sterne writes a chapter on buttons; he writes a chapter on knots. Many of the chapters are shorter than a page. The author’s preface arrives in chapter 20 of the third volume. The novel’s most endearing character — besides the garrulous autobiographer himself — is Uncle Toby, a veteran of the French wars who returns with an embarrassing wound to his groin and, post-convalescence, spends his days in the backyard building scale models of various theaters of battle, the better to relive his glory days. Transitions between high, anarchic comedy and sustained passages of sentiment can be sudden and vertiginous. Shandy is accidentally circumcised by a falling window sash; Shandy falls in love with a “nut-brown maid” in France; a heartstring-yanking obituary for a jolly priest named Yorick is followed by a wordless, all-black page; an inveterate bore named Phutatorius (Latin for “Fucker”) has the misfortune to catch a burning chestnut in his breeches. (Genitalia in general do not fare well in this book.) And an alleged act of bestiality leads to the iconic final words of the novel:
‘L–d!’ said my mother, ‘what is all this story about?’ —-
‘A COCK and a BULL,’ said Yorick —- ‘And one of the best of its kind, I ever heard.’
I could go on, but that’s the point — Shandy’s project is telescopically expandable, as he notes with less anxiety than glee: “At this rate I should just live 364 times faster than I should write.” Days are more easily lived than written, at least with the narrator’s level of detail and errant whimsicality: “I write a careless kind of a civil, nonsensical, good-humoured Shandean book, which will do all your hearts good.” Hamlet saturates certain volumes of Shandy, the Dane’s inability to take action here spun into a structural literary motif: the fullness, absurdity, hilarity, and pathos of life outpace man’s ability to take stock of them — and man, in turn, responds by dragging his feet, gazing at his navel, and losing focus whenever a new and shiny object is presented to him.
Let’s not mince words: this is all deeply silly. And that, of course, is the point. On trial in Shandy are the masturbatory elements of scholarship; distractible humans and their whimsical hobbies; the proliferating literary phenomenon of “biographical freebooters”; and self-involved males who can argue (with a Voltairean antilogic) finer points of causality while, upstairs, poor Mrs. Shandy lies in excruciating, protracted labor. Few novels — even few early novels — have less believability in them. And yet Shandy, in all its digressive, distracted, ADD glory, captures something of life that narratives of linear focus rarely can.
The characters who labored in service to the early novel — the fictional memoirists of Defoe, the virtuous letter-writers of Richardson — told tales semi-intended to be taken as true, and which sometimes were: after the massive success of Gulliver’s Travels, Arbuthnot wrote to Swift, “Gulliver is in every body’s hands…I lent the book to an old Gentleman, who went immediately to his map to search for Lilliput.” The idea of readerly enjoyment was a vicarious identification with characters we might, in an idle moment, fancy to be real. (Richardson coyly dubbed himself the mere “editor” of Clarissa; Fielding, in proto-Sternean mockery of Richardson, insisted on Tom Jones as a “history.”) Sterne took this early and enduring premise of fiction and extended it to its illogical conclusion: a book that seeks to mimic “reality” will, in fact, smack of distraction and madness.
When people talk about Shandy nowadays, it is in the context of the postmoderns. In the inventive and charming 2006 film, Steve Coogan intones: “Shandy was a postmodern classic before there was a modernism to be post about.”
Sterne indeed anticipated many of the tics and preoccupations that came to define (and oversimplify) postmodernism as inherently “self-conscious.” A text is a text, and there is an author behind it, whatever Roland Barthes may say, and somewhere in the 20th century the dominant premise of fiction — the suspension of disbelief, of our knowledge that these characters aren’t real — was no longer enough. The Wizard had to emerge from behind the curtain; metacritical comment became de rigueur. Books of fiction had to declare as such, and to remark, speciously or otherwise, on the process of their own composition.
What is lacking in the more paranoid of the postmoderns is a Shandean sense of textual play as total entertainment. Did Sterne agonize over the “constructed” nature of his opus? No; he reveled in it. His footnotes were not self-lacerating interrogations of the potential dishonesty of the enterprise — they were postscript punchlines to jokes that already had you splitting your sides and getting weird looks in terminal D at O’Hare. The book is a total funhouse, full of toys, surprises, and regressive loops. Volume IX leaves two chapters totally blank, where the author sees fit to introduce the events of chapter 25 before returning to numbers 18 and 19. In lieu of describing the toothsome Widow Wadman in Volume VI, Sterne allows you an empty page on which to draw your conception of the perfect woman: “Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind—-as like your mistress as you can—-as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you–’tis all one to me.”
‘Tis all one to us, as well. Sterne invites us to skip passages that bore, forget passages that displease, to hop and jump between chapters, and to reimagine scenes to our own liking. In elevating to muse-status his own fickle fancy, Sterne indulges ours, creating a book that is less a novel than the longest sustained joke in the English language.
And yes, it is long. But here’s the secret: you don’t really need to finish it to get the joke. Just follow the big F, if you prefer — you’ll miss the climax between Toby and the Widow, but so did Coogan et al. in the film. (There was just a lot happening on the set, see, and they got distracted.) Information overload is not a new phenomenon — it’s sort of just part of being alive. Our current objects of distraction may be somewhat newer and shinier, and fewer of us read Latin and French, but the Shandean truths abide. If Sterne can teach us anything, it is to enjoy the flightiness of our mortal minds — not to lament, but to laugh.
PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
(The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)
The best prologue I ever read was an epigraph. The book in question was from my early reading days, before I had come to understand that epigraphs were a common thing. The quote was a prelude to a ripping fantasy yarn by Raymond Feist and was from the pen of Shakespeare:
We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.
The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare
I would never hold that book up to any critical scrutiny today, but Feist’s talent for setting off an epic coming-of-age story with quotes about how great it was to be young—and to imagine anything was possible—had a kind of perfect intonation.
Having taken up the mantle “writer,” epigraphs have taken on a significance of another sort. Just what purpose epigraphs serve, where they come from, and how the source from which they were drawn affects the story in which they are embedded have all bubbled to the surface. Among the most pressing questions for me: should epigraphs be thought of as part of the text, a sort of pre-modern, post-modern device, like tossing a newspaper clipping into the body narrative? Or are they actually a direct invitation by the author, perhaps saying, “Look here, for from this inspiration came this tale?”
Put another way, are they part of the book or part of the author, or both, or neither?
People love to call epigraphs a bundle of things, an “apposite quote that sets the mood for a story and to give an idea of what’s coming” or “a quote to set the tone like a prelude in music” or as a “foreshadowing mechanism” or “like little appetizers of the great entrée of a story” meant to illuminate “important aspects of the story [and] get us headed in the right direction.”
Humbug, say I. Humbug.
Epigraphs have a long history. As early as 1726, one can find in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the cousin of the epigraph, a fictitious “note from the publisher” explaining that Gulliver is in fact a real person and these his true papers. Yes, Lolita got that from somewhere. But even Gulliver’s fictionalized note, that cousin to the epigraph, can be traced to Cervantes and Don Quixote (published in 1605) wherein the author assures us that:
My wish would be simply to present it to thee plain and unadorned, without any embellishment of preface or uncountable muster of customary sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies, such as are commonly put at the beginning of books.
Author’s Preface to Don Quixote (following, one should note, several sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies)
And so it is certain that even in the time predating the texts which we now call the canon, and some would assert Don Quixote the first “novel,” the epigraph and its ilk were widely entrenched into the formula for literature.
The point is, of course, that epigraphs have been around for a long time.
So to the question of how we are to read epigraphs, one must first decide whether there are ‘bad’ epigraphs and ‘good’ epigraphs, and if so, how these categories might arise.
I have already described something which many would characterize as an example of a good kind of epigraph, that quote which seems to connect in a fundamental way with the text. Like, perhaps, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” Yet, of course, epigraphs cannot be too explicit, too clear or too thematic or it ruins the whole endeavor. If the author gets up on a soapbox and declares “this is an important novel” well then the ship’s sailed. That’s why William Styron starts Sophie’s Choice with this quote from André Malraux: “…I seek that essential region of the soul where absolute evil confronts brotherhood.”
Clearly these are not the only types of epigraphs that succeed. Nabokov hit a home run with his epigraph for The Gift with this quote from a Russian school-book: “An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.” Which reveals that sometimes it is enough to be clever. Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and other Predicaments has an epigraph from the Chicago Manual of Style: “A dedication intended to be humorous will very likely lose its humor with time and so is inappropriate for a serious book destined to take a permanent place in the literature.” Again, very clever. So clever epigraphs work.
However, two kinds of epigraphs do not work. The first is any serious literary epigraph to a Harry Potter book, like for instance, this one from The Deathly Hallows
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude
Perhaps one will call me hypocritical for allowing a quote from Shakespeare to grace a munchy fantasy novel and then to turn around and say that the epigraph to a Harry Potter book falls flat. I would simply note that the fantasy novel in question actually took itself seriously whereas Harry Potter tried to have it both ways—and the William Penn quote is about life and death, which would have been inappropriate to any book that wasn’t. Rowling should have selected something on the theme of love and friendship to be true to the work she published.
Another sort of epigraphical failure is in Blood Meridian. McCarthy uses one of those triple-epigraphs which I’ll address in a moment, and the third epigraph, after two highfalutin contemplations on darkness and death he adds this:
Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.
THE YUMA DAILY SUN
McCarthy has an important point here, which is that people have been scalping each other since forever. Unfortunately, it would have come out more candidly through the mouth of one of his characters. The big problem is that in a semi-biblical masterwork, the only part of the entire overarching text that ever makes any reference to normal-sounding speech is this tiny bit of a 3-part epigraph.
So this sets out an objective standard. Epigraphs must count as part of the text because they affect the way the text is read, and therefore are tied more to the text than to the author. They belong to the text, regardless of the way the author feels. Also, as these epigraphs make clear, they are clearly not sources of inspiration for the story. Quite often they are tacked on.
So epigraphs abide by certain principles, and they do not always work. Quite often they come across like throat clearing, sort of a “here it goes” before the author gets into the work. Especially when an author has more than one epigraph, which seems to have become only more common. So when searching for an epigraph, the most important part of the endeavor should be how the quote integrates with the novel as a whole. Does it fit the tone, and does it take on a deeper meaning, or lend a deeper meaning, because it’s there?
(As a quick aside, I would like to say that overt references to Dover Beach should be restricted to epigraphs. In a striking number of novels, the poem is actually a plot point giving rise to a significant epiphany. I’m looking at you Fahrenheit 451 and most especially Saturday.)
But the question remains: How does one determine precisely the tone an epigraph should take? Herman Melville in Moby-Dick has probably one of the longest and most interesting (and most tonally consistent) epigraphs ever. He spends several pages just talking about Whales. But again, isn’t it just—too much? Would it not have been a better epigraph if he had simply included only this one from among all his myriad quotations:
October 13. “There she blows,” was sung out from the mast-head.
“Where away?” demanded the captain.
“Three points off the lee bow, sir.”
“Raise up your wheel. Steady!” “Steady, sir.”
“Mast-head ahoy! Do you see that whale now?”
“Ay ay, sir! A shoal of Sperm Whales! There she blows! There she breaches!”
“Sing out! sing out every time!”
“Ay Ay, sir! There she blows! there–there–THAR she blows–bowes–bo-o-os!”
“How far off?”
“Two miles and a half.”
“Thunder and lightning! so near! Call all hands.”
–J. ROSS BROWNE’S ETCHINGS OF A WHALING CRUIZE. 1846.
A similar question of “too much” arises in Sophie’s Choice and other texts in which the author seeks to use an epigraph in another language. Given the fact that most readers will not be speakers and therefore cannot see the intricacies in tone and the shades of meaning in that other language’s words, one wonders whether the author is writing the epigraph to himself or to the reader. If we are to think of epigraphs as part of the main text, then this foreign-language snippet needs to stand on its own, it can’t just be authorial vanity, right? Although, since his editor let him plant it there in the original German or French, one wonders if this means that epigraphs are thought to be more like dedications in the publishing world than the main text.
Finally, one wonders why epigraphs are always at the beginning of the book. Some stories end and make you want to hold the book to your chest and absorb it directly into your very soul. How moving it would be to me to finish a book and turn the page, sad that it’s all over and read an epigraph that reflects on all that’s come before.
It began at the start of the year with Huck Finn, and Gulliver put in an appearance this week. Along the way, Gatsby and Don Quixote stood on the pedestal and took a bow, their tales championed, their authors heralded.The Globe and Mail, that venerable institution which, not incidentally, happens to pay my salary, has summoned a panel of experts (not, repeat, NOT including yours truly) to choose 50 books – the finest fifty in literary history – drawn from fiction and non-fiction, and including tomes both classic and modern.But this isn’t just your garden variety list. No sir. For each book chosen, an essay is written by a noteworthy scribe (Alberto Manguel makes a case for Dante’s Divine Comedy; Michael Ignatieff for Machiavelli’s The Prince).Each week, one essay is published. There is no order to the publication of the fifty.We’ll check back at the end of the year when the project comes to a close, but in the meantime, here’s the latest essay, Victoria Glendinning’s case for Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. From there, scroll down and look on the left for individual links to each of the other essays published so far.
My recent post about the Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions has generated an interesting thread at The Comics Journal Message Board. Included is word of upcoming additions to the Penguin series as well as a great round of pairing famous comics artists with classic novels to come up with such combinations as R. Crumb doing a cover for Lolita and Tony Millionaire doing the cover for Gulliver’s Travels.