Category Archives: Writing


Academically-sponsored discussion + author (Jennifer Egan) + speculations on technology and books = hits at the soft spot where readers and writers meet.

via Dan Rosenblum/@CapitalNewYork:

“[Egan] said there was a contradiction between her interest in technology as a writer and her personal behavior.

‘I didn’t want email on my phone, and I held out as long as I could,’ Egan said. ‘But then I noticed that I was having to go home all the time, because I was having to check my email.’

But, she said, the ‘fetishization of connection itself’ fascinated her.

‘Who cares that we can connect?’ she said. ‘What’s the big deal? I think Facebook is colossally dull. I think it’s like everyone coming to live in a huge Soviet apartment block, [in] which everyone’s cell looks exactly the same.’

The room laughed.”

Readers will pay (money, time) to connect with writers. Sometimes it’s funny, too – even at a moment like this when a writer’s contempt puts distance in that connection, and puts a reader farther away from what they are: creators themselves.

It could be different. Egan could find be finding a new audience on Subtext, for example.

I wonder what Egan would be saying about connection if she had no readers.

Two poles: on one, the “Everyone is an artist” of Joseph Beuys. On the other, the “I am not really an artist” of Maurizio Cattelan.

When writers are not biting the hands that read them, the reader is probably somewhere in between the two.


Sensual Nothingness

I remember I wanted to get to non art, non connotative, non anthropomorphic, non geometric, non nothing, everything, but of another kind, vision, sort. From a total other reference point. Is it possible?

Eva Hesse, quoted in E. Sussman, ed., Eva Hesse, San Francisco, 2002, p. 17

I didn’t know how to smoke cigarettes, think about existentialism, appreciate the cover design (“add a rainbow to give philosophy some color”), or read the book:

What was the this nothingness? I kept finding it, the way that a new word is suddenly heard everywhere, like the air that whistles around the scalp as one drives in a convertible. There actually is a lot there. This is a journey that touches on all the senses.

1. Sound

I fared little better with Wittgenstein. Skipped to the end of Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus to get to the juicy part:

Instead of John Cage’s 4’33”, I prefer a little sound perforated by lots of silence, a la Morton Feldman’s Piano and String Quartet.

2. Sight.

Like there is nothing ever really silent, there are very few things that are truly white: there are shadows, different layers of light, different shades, stray marks.

Robert Ryman, "No Title Required." Enamel on cherry, maple, and oak.

If you see Robert Ryman’s paintings in a gallery, it does untrivialize white (and, by extension, all other colors, shades.)

Likewise, color is not required to form an audience for an artwork. The audience is bending down, taking an unprinted sheaf of paper, holding it, and then doing whatever else they will do with it, going on with their life, and that is the artwork.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Passport), 1991. White paper, unlimited series, 10.16 x 60 x 60cm

3. Taste

Umami, the phantom “fifth flavor,” more like a sense of round fullness. Tomatoes and mushrooms have it. It takes this ghost to make a dish taste complete. Plus, everything that has ever been tasted only exists as a memory.

4. Smell

I liked Luca Turin’s Perfumes: The A-Z Guide: hundreds of pages of poetic descriptions of small molecules. Rather, a book that allows you to “try on” verbal descriptions of things, like wearing words. If perfume is about the wearer’s mind, what they think they’re becoming, then I might become Jazz, for example.

Christopher Brosius’s idea for an invisible fragrance, or nearly invisible fragrance, has me thinking about a moment when nothing becomes something that can be sold: the marketplace as a kind of apotheosis for nothingness.

It would be selling the idea of nothing in order to facilitate human connection:

So as Brosius saw it, invisible perfume would be a psychological trick. He imagined two people meeting for the first time. Both of them would light up in euphoria at the smell of each other, and they wouldn’t know why.

It’s actually quite beautiful. This would lead to 5. Touch. What is it to touch nothing? Perhaps this is our intangible, ineffable mind. Perhaps it is related to Nirodha in Buddhism: a kind of cessation, or release.

In Place of Erudite

Not a book review, but something noticed after Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. Or, What Reading a Book Does, Chapter 35: The Tangential.

Taking too much from the blurbs, I found an obtuse take on what “relentlessly erudite” means (Vanity Fair). The novel’s characters are precocious Greek students at fictional Hampden College, and they are conversant in the classics. Literally – Greek, however sloppily inflected, allows them to wonder aloud to each other when in mixed company: “Always, previously, in an emergency we could throw out something in Greek, under the guise of an aphorism or quotation.” (501) Like this:

I did not understand what he meant. The form of “dishonor” (ατιμία) that he used also meant “loss of civil rights.” “Atimia?” I repeated.

“But rights are for living men, not for the dead.”
“Oιμoι,” he said, shaking his head. “Oh, dear. No. No.”

Erudite: Having or showing great knowledge or learning.

In fiction, I’m now looking for something else, something far more valuable, examples of emotional erudition:
How do characters validate, or invalidate, one another’s feelings?
Are the characters reading each other’s (fictional) expressions?
Are they self-aware, or mindful?
How important is it to an author to describe a character’s emotional kaleidoscope?
Et cetera.

Kinds of reading are given such short shrift. This one helps to avoid reading about Elaborate Architectures of Things That are Probably Beside the Point.

P.S. The Secret History of the Book Jacket of The Secret History.

The Epic Simile on Screen

I should have known, at least 4 years ago, that Paradise Lost, the movie, was eventually coming out.

Edition after edition of the epic poem are out there, and will continue to be out there. The book is going to sell thousands because of the movie, and whoever buys it is going to find a reading experience as bafflingly dense as it ever was.

It’s such an intense read; I hope your footnotes are there. Just try and read it with or without popcorn. There will be large, undigestible kernels. Some of the lasting forces the poem (more like baroque battering ram) unleashes on me, though, are the epic similes. These are reflective stoppages of time, where the poet “pulls back” and grandly embellishes an image. He riffs on it for a few lines, comparing it to other things: in history, in other poems. These similes are visual moments, and could be so outrageous on film.

Here’s one. Satan is lying on the lake of fire, talking to his buddies. It’s treacherous. His bulk is huge: so large, it’s like a whale that a fisherman mistakes for an actual island, and anchors his boat to the side it as if it were land. That’s what evil’s like: so invisibly massive, you’ll think that you’re in safe territory. You’re not. You’re on the exact opposite of safe territory.

In fact, this was one of the passages that bugged T.S. Eliot for being over-intense. “I am not too happy about eyes that both blaze and sparkle,” he wrote, “unless Milton meant us to imagine a roaring fire ejecting sparks: and that is too fiery an image for even supernatural eyes.”

This was before 3-D movies, though. I think overdoing it here would be quite called for.

The Immediate

A Classics course I once took ended with the professor arguing that “great books keep us from being seduced by the urgency of the immediate.”

That phrase stuck with me. Whenever I see a hysterical New York Post cover, a ridiculous advertisement, or a blimp advertising off-world colonies, I think of that phrase.

I assumed this was about the past versus the present. What hoary advice, though, does it give about the immediate future?

What happens during reading. A subject for students, yes, but an underexposed one, generally.The Pleasure of the Text. There’s nothing but the immediate: what we’re doing now.

What happens after reading. We’ve forgotten most of what we’ve ever read, drawing instead from a knowledge base, subconscious, subverbal; a personal, internally motivated rudder that steers a “less urgent” immediate. That’s what Prof was advocating for.

The idea of a book “following through” with a reader, even after the book is over, is a current one.

The drive is to deploy applications and devices to establish that community and loyalty, and measure it. The relationships are difficult to track, monetize, and we covet the metadata for them.

Convergences: great books and the future, culture and marketing. When the terabytes of data are used as a complement to how a book itself can contribute meaningfully to a reader’s “personal culture,” during and after reading.

Invisible Books

The idea of the book as a mysterious place to inhabit has constant allure: to be led into Invisible Cities, to be led into the Library of Babel. Getting lost.

So is the opposite idea: of the invisible book, the book that becomes secondary to life.
The closer you get to the end, the more it ceases to exist. Getting found.

Some kind of shared book, passed on with such enthusiasm to so many different people, each of them learning it so intimately, that, in fading away, the book becomes their language, their body, their being.

Perhaps getting lost and getting found are both the same thing.