Stagger onward rejoicing

Tag: writing (page 1 of 3)

Terry Teachout and the Last of the Conservative Critics | The Nation:

But Teachout, whose natural inclination was toward equanimity and collegiality, perhaps never fully confronted the politics of his conservative peers. Unlike Didion and Wills, Teachout never stopped writing for National Review. His review of a biography of Graham Greene ran in the magazine last year — a magazine that is no longer that of the Goldwater or Reagan right but one that that seems to have settled on a position of being anti-anti-Trump. Not only that, but Teachout eschewed a larger reckoning with the question of how Trump took over the GOP so quickly. It would have been a major contribution for a writer of Teachout’s caliber to make an inquiry into how the right had gone haywire, but he never made the effort. 

Why should Teachout have made that effort? He “eschewed” political controversy so he could write about the things he most cared about: the arts. Seems a reasonable decision to me, and one I wish more writers made. There aren’t enough writers who are conservative in Teachout’s mode. 

(Teachout was a terrific writer in so many ways, but I must pause to note that the one great outlier in his body of work was his absurdly unfair, tendentious, and just plain hostile biography of Duke Ellington. I’ve never understood his attitude towards the Duke. Ethan Iverson’s detailed critique of the biography, mentioned in the Nation essay, is very good, and is usefully supplemented by an equally detailed response by the Duke’s nephew.) 

Who’s Counting?

I’m not doing an end-of-year roundup of what I’ve written this year, or what I’ve read, or what I’ve watched, or what I’ve listened to, or where I’ve traveled, or the museums I’ve visited, or the concerts I’ve attended – that last one because I didn’t attend any concerts in 2023, not even Taylor Swift’s Eras tour. But I’m not writing up any of that other stuff because I don’t know: don’t know how many books I’ve read, movies I’ve seen, etc. etc. I couldn’t tell you what the most-read posts on this blog are because I don’t have analytics enabled. I don’t know what my Top Ten Books of the Year are because I just don’t think that way.

I used to; when I was a teenager I kept a list of the Ten Best Books I’ve Ever Read and every time I read a book I felt obliged to sit down and think about whether it broke the top ten – and if so, where did it belong? (Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End reigned unchallenged at the top for quite some time – and then I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed.) But then after a few years I realized that some of the books that meant the most to me were, unaccountably, not on the list; while some books that I had put on the list … I squirmed just seeing the titles. And the whole business was so much work. I now think of the day I crumpled up the sheet and threw it in the trash as my first real step towards maturity as a reader.

But it took me a lot longer to rid myself of that year-end feeling of accountability, of the calendar-turning responsibility to make a report. Now that I’ve put all that behind me, it seems odd that I ever thought that way.

Micro.blog has a great feature called Bookshelves, which I often – though not altogether consistently – use to note what I’m reading, less for myself than for those who ask. You can note what you want to read – which I never do, because I read at whim – what you’re currently reading, and what you’ve finished reading. But there are (blessedly) no dates on that page I just linked to, only book covers. I could figure out how many of those books I read in a given year, but I never have and never will. And in any case those three categories are insufficient: something important is missing.

I am inspired by my buddy Austin Kleon’s list of the books he didn’t read this year, the idea for which, he says, he got from John Warner. Inspired not to do that, exactly, but some year – not this year, mind you – to make a list of Books I Abandoned This Year.

I think one of the most interesting things you can do as a reader is to sit down and think about why you abandon a book, when that happens to you. Many, many pages in my notebooks discuss just this question. Over the years I gradually came to an awareness: the kinds of book I am most likely to abandon are history and theology; the kinds I am least likely to abandon are novels and biographies. It turns out that while I am deeply interested in both history and theology, my mind needs a human story to hook itself to. (Thus the great narrative historians, like Gibbon and C. V. Wedgwood, command my attention in precisely the same way that novels and biographies do.) Novels and biographies raise certain questions for me that I pursue by mining works of history and theology for information and insight, which means that I read quite a bit of history and theology; I just don’t read those books from beginning to end. I don’t read them the way I read narratives.

If you ask yourself why you’re abandoning a book you can learn a lot about your own intellectual habits, preferences, needs. The books you don’t finish can be even more important to you than the ones you do, if you learn to inquire into your own responses. And that’s one reason why I don’t make these year-end lists: they tell a misleading story.

And I’ve only noted one of the ways they mislead: What about short stories and poems and essays and even blog posts? In any given year, those short-form genres may shape your thoughts and feelings, may contribute to your flourishing, more than any work that happens to be book-length. One of Pascal’s pensées or one Psalm may matter more than a dozen books.

A few years ago, I started the practice of taking one hour each week to reflect on what I read and wrote in the previous seven days; and one morning each month to reflect on what I read and wrote in the previous month. I think that has been infinitely better for my intellectual and spiritual orientation than any year-end list could be. Something to consider, maybe?

A blessed new year to you, to me, and to this poor wounded world.

time well spent

Today I spent a few hours I didn’t really have to spare writing a long post about Israel, Hamas, and Gaza. Why? Because I had to. It was intellectually and psychologically necessary for me to write out my thoughts, at length, with documentation — affirmations and hesitations, words of grief and words of hope, everything. I drafted and re-drafted, organized and reorganized, put things in and took things out, linked to everything relevant and helpful. I said my phrases aloud, trying to get the rhythm and the tone right. Finally, and after considerably more time than I had expected to spend, I decided that I was done. My mouse pointer hovered over the “Publish” button, I paused, and … 

I deleted the post. Why? Because our entire discourse surrounding Israel is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. No word of mine could ever be heard over the cacophony, and in any case I have no expertise to share, and probably no wisdom either. 

I do have this bit of wisdom about writing for you, though: Always remember the difference between what you need to share and what you just need to write. And try, if you can manage, to remember that difference before you click the “Publish” button. I am glad that I wrote the post — the topic would have nagged at me until I finally broke down and addressed it — and very glad that I deleted it. 

one cheer for “negative experience”

Nicola Griffith:

Once you have the reader’s empathy, though, you must keep it. You must persuade the reader to trust you enough to lower their guard, to let go of the constant low-level self-protection most of us experience in the real world. This means you must be very, very careful how you handle negative experience. Every reader is different, and you can’t please everyone, but my personal bias (and I’m far from alone in this), is extreme antipathy to wanton cruelty towards helpless living things. If you make me empathize with a dog or child or young woman, and then torment them using visceral language, I will experience visceral revulsion, throw the book at the wall, and never read anything you write again. I won’t trust you.

I feel exactly the same way about the same things, and yet I am reluctant to endorse the prescription Griffith makes. For one thing, the category of “negative experience” is so vast and amorphous that, especially when you consider the obvious fact that, as Griffith says, “every reader is different,” it’s hard to think of anything that would clearly escape it. Reading about a happy family might be a “negative experience” for someone whose family is unhappy. 

No, I’m inclined to say to writers, Don’t be careful about portraying negative experience or any other kind of experience. If Shakespeare and Dostoevsky and Toni Morrison had been careful, we wouldn’t have King Lear, The Brothers Karamazov, and Beloved — three works that have been enormously painful to many readers. But that pain hasn’t always been bad; sometimes, for some readers, I am inclined to say for most readers, it has been necessary. 

I just don’t think we need more books written by people who walk on eggshells for fear of offending or hurting. A world in which some readers are wounded by what they read is not an ideal one, but a world in which writers self-censor to avoid disturbing those most prone to disturbance would be worse. There are other and better ways to protect endangered people than muzzling our writers. 

UPDATE: One more point. Griffith’s essay, like much writing on arts and ideas these days, operates from the assumption that any given reader’s vulnerabilities and sensitivities are fixed, unchangeable. The idea that a sensitive reader could become less sensitive, or could adapt to his or her sensitivities in some constructive way, is not on the table. I think it ought to be on the table. 

outreach and generativity

Over at the Daily Nous, Alex Guerrero, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers, argues that the traditional three branches of academic work — teaching, research, and service — needs to be augmented by a fourth: outreach or engagement.

Colleges and universities are supported (1) by the general public, through government funding; (2) by students and their families, through tuition and fees; and (3) by rich people, through donations. What education and what knowledge will be pursued in colleges and universities is not set in stone; it is, rather, a function of what those three groups want and demand. If we want philosophy to be part of the education and part of the knowledge that is pursued in the years to come, we need people in those three groups to want and demand philosophy. And for people in those three groups to want and demand philosophy, we need to reach out to them, engage them, make them aware of what philosophy is and why it is wonderful and valuable. Given what philosophy is, and given our contemporary situation, that task is monumental, and must be undertaken at many different levels, in many ways. No small number of us can do it on our own. Therefore, it should be a part of all of our jobs — quite literally — to do this work.

Such outreach can be accomplished in several ways:

There are obviously central enterprises: exposing children and adolescents to philosophy and serious humanities in K–12 education, for example, something that many are already doing. Writing “public facing” philosophy that appears in newspapers, broad circulation prestige venues, trade books, and so on. Creating online philosophy courses and videos and other broad access materials like podcasts. There are also more local, more intimate efforts: organizing a public philosophy week at a public library, running a philosophy club or ethics bowl team at the local high school, organizing community book groups and “meetups” to discuss philosophy, running “ask a philosopher” booths at the train station, farmers’ market, or mall. These activities bring philosophy to people outside of the academy and bring people into philosophy, giving them entry points and a better sense of what the subject is and why it is of value. They also are a lot of fun. And a ton of work to do well. And, for the most part, they are treated as outside of one’s job, falling outside of the big three: research, teaching, and service.

Obviously this idea would apply to many other disciplines (most of them? all of them?) and it certainly applies to mine. When I write here on my blog, or for non-academic magazines and websites, I am certainly and quite consciously practicing such outreach — but none of it has any value in the eyes of Baylor University. My position at Baylor is wholly due to my academic work. You could of course argue that that’s as it should be, that strictly academic work is what universities ought to value and support; but for what little it’s worth, I think that’s shortsighted.

I could cite several reasons for my view. For instance, some students want to attend the Honors College here at Baylor because they have encountered the public work, the outreaching work, that I and several of my colleagues do. We can in a similar way help with the recruitment of faculty also. But I suspect that there may be other benefits to my kind of public-facing work, benefits that are more strictly academic — even if the work itself isn’t academic, or not in the familiar ways.

Consider the career of the great computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra. Cal Newport recently wrote about Dijkstra’s work habits in a post that’s interesting in several ways — but I just want to call attention to one thing: what Dijkstra did after he received a research fellowship from the Burroughs Corporation. Newport quotes one colleague of Dijkstra’s: “The Burroughs years saw him at his most prolific in output of research articles. He wrote nearly 500 documents in the EWD series.”

But hang on a minute. His entries in “the EWD series” were not in any conventional academic sense “research articles.” They were, basically, letters, originally typewritten and later handwritten with a Mont Blanc pen, which Dijkstra photocopied and mailed to colleagues. (He numbered and labeled them, and each label began with his initials, EWD, thus their familiar name. “I got a new EWD today!”) The initial recipients numbered only in the dozens, but since they had photocopiers too, it’s estimated that each EWD had hundreds or even thousands of readers.

Sometimes EWDs developed into proper research articles, but, as the home page for his archives notes, “the great majority of his manuscripts remain unpublished. They have been inaccessible to many potential readers, and those who have received copies have been unable to cite them in their own work.” The archive was created precisely in order to enable proper academic citations, since “personal communication from the author” is not a recognized form of documentation in the CS world.

So Dijkstra’s EWDs were not proper academic research, were not the sort of thing that one can put on a CV or include in a year-end report; nor were they “outreach” in Alex Guerrero’s sense, since they were directed to Dijkstra’s colleagues and peers rather than to the general public. Yet, as thousands of computer scientists over the decades have testified, the EWDs were enormously generative: they inspired and guided research throughout the field of computer science.

Universities know how to reward the dissemination of ideas through standard peer-reviewed publication; what they do not know is how to reward generativity. And, to be fair, that’s true at least in part because it’s hard to know in advance what ideas will generate other ideas, what projects other projects. It took a corporation to risk supporting Dijkstra, not knowing what the results would be; but perhaps there are expansive and stimulating thinkers in disciplines that no current corporation would care to support. Maybe that “fourth branch” should, in addition to outreach or engagement, also seek to discover and reward generativity.

The best service I could provide through this blog is to stimulate others (and not just, or even primarily, academics) to pursue ideas that I don’t have time to pursue myself, and while I don’t expect Baylor to reduce my teaching load so that I might have more opportunity to hand-write letters to twenty or thirty colleagues — or, um, blog a lot — a guy can dream, can’t he?

Justin Smith-Ruiu:

The risk of attempting such a thing is that one will appear unserious and will accordingly begin to lose the professional and social advantages that slowly began accumulating throughout all those years of pretending to be an adult. I don’t mean to overdo the curious parallels between art and faith, but it does seem to me that to be willing to take this risk is somewhat analogous to the choice Saint Paul said one must make to become a “fool for Christ”. The sixteenth-century Muscovite saint known as “Basil Fool for Christ”, for whom the world’s most iconic onion-dome church is named, was also known as “Basil the Blessed”: it comes out to the same thing.

I want, I mean, to spend the rest of my life, consciously and willfully, as a fool, at least in those domains that matter most to me. Of course I can still “clean up real nice” whenever the circumstances require, but I now see those circumstances more or less in the same way I see filing taxes or updating my passwords — just part of the general tedium of maintaining one’s place in a world that pretends to be built around the interests and expectations of sober-minded grown-ups, but that in the end is a never-ending parade of delirious grotesques.

I have in effect undergone a double conversion, then, to both faith and art, which in the end may be only a single but two-sided conversion, to a mode of existence characteristic of children and fools.

Unanswered Questions

Over the past few months I’ve occasionally made oblique references to a book I’m working on. That book is tentatively titled Unanswered Questions: The Art of Terrence Malick. It will be an exploration of the whole arc of Malick’s career as a filmmaker, though its structure will not be linear. A linear structure, working chronologically through all the movies, would not be a very Malickian way of doing business, would it? That said, the book will begin with a moment from Malick’s first movie, Badlands (1973) — this moment: 

Badlands this very moment

But it will quickly move on from there to later films, then back to earlier ones … you’ll see when the time comes what my initial perception is, and how it will shape everything that comes later. (One hint: it involves Ralph Waldo Emerson.) 

I won’t be writing about the project here, because that would reduce the likelihood of my eventually placing it with a publisher — and this is a book that I’m genuinely unsure I will be able to place. Books about movies are less common than they used to be, for reasons not totally clear, though some people think that real movie fans are more likely to invest their money in social Blu-Ray editions of their favorites, complete with commentaries and other special features, than in books. And this one will not have a conventional structure, so … well, we’ll see, in time. And this will take time: I won’t be able to finish it until Malick’s next film appears, and I don’t know when that will be. In the meantime, I want to write as much as I can, while remaining aware of the possibility that this great-work-to-come will change my mind about many things.  

In the meantime I will be posting here about movies in general. Watching and thinking about other movies has helped me better to understand Malick, who makes movies unlike anyone else’s — he has his own distinctive cinematic grammar and syntax and vocabulary, and I find that by having a clearer sense of the movie languages he is departing from, I am better able to describe what he’s up to. (I once saw an interview with Christopher Nolan in which he commented that on the basis of a 30-second clip you can with absolute confidence identify a movie as Malick’s — though he went on to say that if you ask him to explain how he recognizes it as Malick he can’t do it. I’m hoping to achieve more explanatory power.)  

Anyway, check out the “movies” tag for more. But probably not much more about Malick.  

IMG 2811

Forthcoming: The Shield of Achilles

I will be returning soon to my posts on Augustine’s City of God, but maybe not for another week or so, because I need to devote my full attention to the final edits of my forthcoming critical edition of Auden’s collection The Shield of Achilles — my most recent contribution to Princeton University Press’s Auden Critical Editions series. I will admit to being very excited about this project. Though things may change, below please see my Preface in its current form.  

The Shield of Achilles appeared in 1955, which for Auden was right on time: he tended to publish a collection of poems every five years or so, and the previous book, Nones, had appeared in 1951. The poems of Nones indicated the beginnings of a major transition in his work. Through the first half of the 1940s he had written long poems in which he worked through the implications of his newfound Christian faith for politics and history (For the Time Being), for art (The Sea and the Mirror), and for the psyches of people devastated by war and by the various dislocations of modernity (The Age of Anxiety). But in the major poems in Nones Auden began a reckoning with certain themes that, he came to realize, he had neglected: the embodied life that humans share with all other creatures, and the character of genuine human community.

That he spent much of his time in these years living on the island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples, around people whose language he knew imperfectly and whose habits he struggled to share, in a country that reminded him constantly of the complex relationship between Rome’s empire and the great claims of the Christian faith, exercised a powerful influence on the course of his thinking. To Ischia he wrote, in 1948 when he was new there,

                    How well you correct
Our injured eyes, how gently you train us to see
               Things and men in perspective
          Underneath your uniform light.

If in Nones Auden inaugurated his new quest to “see / Things and men in perspective,” in The Shield of Achilles he provides a powerful report on the fruits of that quest. It is the boldest and most intellectually assured work of his career, an achievement that has not been sufficiently acknowledged, in large part because its poetic techniques are not easily perceived or assessed. It is the most unified of all Auden’s collections, and indeed — once its intricate principles of organization are grasped — may be seen as the true successor of those long poems of the 1940s.   

Early chapter outline of True Grit using Portis’s original character names. (Copyright Charles M. Portis Estate. All rights reserved.)

A Nighttime Walk with Garnette Cadogan:

GC: Night walks are incredibly important. The city becomes a different creature at night. There are levels of intimacy, of openness, of freedom, of control, of interaction, of encounter, that far surpasses—or, at least, offers a very different quality than—those of the day. People get drawn into associations and affinities that come from seeing each other regularly at night. In part, because places are more sparse; less obstructions to a welcoming eye contact. You feel it on the sidewalks, in the streets, and in the alleyways. The stoops are yours much more so than during the day. The very atmosphere feels more ready to accommodate you. Many places have one, singular, ingrained core story during the daytime, but at night? At night, these places give up many stories. A multiplicity of stories waiting to reveal themselves to you.

I: Do you have a preference between, let’s call them Day New York and Night New York?

GC: Give me Night New York over Day New York a million times over. That may partly be due to my constitution, and less to do with New York. I come alive at night. My friends say I get my second wind at midnight, but the truth is I get my first wind at midnight. My second wind hits at around three o’clock. I love the night. I love the sense of mystery that comes with it. 

Garnette even walks my neighborhood in Waco in the middle of the night, when he comes to visit. I sort of feel that I ought to be with him, but I keep on snoozing…. Garnette is our great documentarian of city walking. He’s mainly in Boston now, but to go for a long walk with Garnette in Manhattan is a great thing. On one walk I think we covered the whole of Greenwich Village. 


This afternoon, after I got some dreary-but-necessary work done, I took some time to browse through a goodly number of Substack newsletters that various folks have recommended. Now, this is by no means a random sample of Substacks, so I don’t claim any general validity for the judgments I am about to make. But in reading through a whole bunch of these newsletters, I noticed two major themes: 

  1. The great majority of these writers consider themselves to be the World’s Greatest Expert in something. They truly believe they know more than anyone else about how to fix AI, or what various literary classics really mean, or how to renew Christendom, or who the next POTUS will be. Again, no random sample here, but holy moly is there a lot of pontificating, asserting from on high, dictating, declaring. Is there some narcissism-elevating chemical in the Substack water? I ask because while there are obnoxious bloggers — that is to say, other writers who don’t have editors — they do not, in my experience, nearly as often assume the tone of relentlessly pedagogical arrogance that characterizes many of the Substacks I’ve been reading.     
  2. Almost all of them write four times more posts than they have ideas to fill.  

There are probably some hidden Substack gems out there, but … then again, maybe not. Please don’t recommend any to me. 

UPDATE: I’m thinking maybe this is the value proposition of Substack — i.e. You should pay me money because I am bringing something super-special that you can’t get anywhere else. There might be a little more of that tone among Substackers who haven’t already made a career elsewhere. If you’re already known quantity, then perhaps you can afford to be a little more modest. 

Re: my buddy Austin’s recent post on indexing notebooks, for most of the last decade I have used Leuchtturm notebooks, which helpfully have index pages at the beginning. And I have faithfully used those, but I have not found them especially useful. What works best for me is this: Whenever I start a new notebook I devote the first few pages to summarizing the most important ideas from the previous notebook. I also have a monthly text-file journal on my computer, and each time I start a new month I do the same: write down what seems most important from the previous month.

his harshest critic

I recently re-read Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture, in the third edition of 1880. Ruskin had originally published the book in 1849, when he was 30 years old, and though it had proved quite popular, later in life Ruskin was reluctant to authorize a new edition. His reason? He hated the book.

He finally gave in, but insisted to the publisher that he be given the opportunity to annotate it. The resulting ongoing ill-tempered commentary is very entertaining. 

Even when he liked what he had written, he could be cynical. For instance, he approved of the glorious and justly famous passage in which he repudiates the tearing down of old buildings: 

Of more wanton or ignorant ravage it is vain to speak; my words will not reach those who commit them, and yet, be it heard or not, I must not leave the truth unstated, that it is again no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead have still their right in them: that which they laboured for, the praise of achievement or the expression of religious feeling, or whatsoever else it might be which in those buildings they intended to be permanent, we have no right to obliterate. What we have ourselves built, we are at liberty to throw down; but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death; still less is the right to the use of what they have left vested in us only. It belongs to all their successors. It may hereafter be a subject of sorrow, or a cause of injury, to millions, that we have consulted our present convenience by casting down such buildings as we choose to dispense with. That sorrow, that loss, we have no right to inflict. 

On the phrase “my words will not reach those who commit them” the older Ruskin wrote, “No, indeed! — any more wasted words than mine throughout life, or bread cast on more bitter waters, I never heard of. This closing paragraph of the sixth chapter is the best, I think, in the book, — and the vainest.” 

But he is rarely as kind to himself. Of a passage on the Gothic architecture of Venice he noted, “I have written many passages that are one-sided or incomplete; and which therefore are misleading if read without their contexts or development. But I know of no other paragraph in any of my books so definitely false as this.” And one of the funniest moments comes in response to a passage about neo-Gothic architecture, which was just getting started in 1849: 

The stirring which has taken place in our architectural aims and interests within these few years, is thought by many to be full of promise: I trust it is, but it has a sickly look to me. 

Ruskin’s comment in 1880: 

I am glad to see I had so much sense, thus early; — if only I had had just a little more, and stopped talking, how much life — of the vividest — I might have saved from expending itself in useless sputter, and kept for careful pencil work! I might have had every bit of St. Mark’s and Ravenna drawn by this time. What good this wretched rant of a book can do still, since people ask for it, let them make of it; but I don’t see what it’s to be. 

This wretched rant of a book — why didn’t I practice drawing instead? 

strings and bows

Making the Sausage – Freddie deBoer:

That said, I feel that the only value proposition I really offer is my writing, the writing itself. The fact of the matter is that anybody could come along and offer the exact same political perspective; it’s a weird lane, but one that could certainly be replicated. What’s not so easily replicated is my writing ability. I have worked very, very hard on my prose for a long time. It’s the only thing I’ve ever been good at. I became a fairly good guitar player, as a young man, but never good enough; I’m bad at almost all athletics and almost preternaturally shitty at team sports; I’m a disaster at most video games; I cook and cook and cook and never get any better; it takes me approximately seven hours to learn any given boardgame; my drawings and handwriting are genuinely indistinguishable from those of a 7-year-old; in the extremely unlikely event that you can get me to dance, kind witnesses will likely ask me if there’s someone they can call to come help me. I’m terribly clumsy even when I’m not on meds, and meds make it even worse. My bike was my primary means of transportation for four years and I still can’t look to my left or right while biking without turning in that direction. And after I got fired from Brooklyn College in 2020 nine months of applications in all kinds of fields got me nothing but a single offer for a $15/hour job. This is all I’ve got. 

A terrific essay from Freddie. 

I often wonder how I would do in Freddie’s situation. I am blessed in that I have two strings to my bow rather than one: My day job is teaching, and I’m past the publish-or-perish stage, so I could just teach if I wanted to. (And I love teaching.) Vital though my writing is to me, I haven’t pushed all my chips to the middle of the table the way Freddie has. 

One of the topics of Freddie’s essay is the response to a recent essay of his on growing up in the Nineties. It was widely read and shared and admired, but there were of course some naysayers. And — also of course, even more of course — most of the naysayers hadn’t read the essay. Some of them, it seems, didn’t even manage to read the entire title

There are millions and millions of people like this on social media, and especially on Twitter — I can’t count the number of times I saw people responding to the first half of a tweet, not having been able to make it all the way to the 200-character mark before blessing the world with their Opinion. (I think those people are pretty much the only ones left on Twitter now.) But that’s par for the social-media course; you can’t expect anything better. 

What bothers me is the extension of these habits of mindlessness into longer-form writing and even into professional journalism. Genuine critique is a great gift to a writer — maybe the single most helpful response to How to Think that I received came from Jonathan Rauch, in a conversation at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who was gracious and friendly but also quite critical. Made me want to run back home and write the Revised and Improved Edition. But criticism of that kind is relatively rare, because it depends on a careful reading of the work in question. You’re much more likely to get a review based on a more superficial reading, which is perhaps inevitable given the tyranny of deadlines. 

But occasionally I have seen a review of a book of mine written by someone who quite evidently hasn’t read the book at all. I mean, maybe they’ve skimmed a few pages, but that’s it. And such reviews are not always negative! — some reviewers have been quite complimentary towards the book that they inaccurately assumed I probably wrote. That sort of thing annoys me in a weird way, but not as much, of course, as the review that attacks an argument I didn’t make — an argument I explicitly repudiated on page 49 — or that wags an admonitory finger at me for leaving something out of my book that in fact is right there on page 73 you dumbass. 

This sort of thing annoys me enough that years ago I stopped reading reviews — though that doesn’t prevent people from writing to me to ask What do you think about the bad things so-and-so said about you? So I end up anyway hearing more than I want to about such responses. And it annoys me even though it can’t really hurt me — so imagine how strongly I would feel about such things if, like Freddie, I were depending on my writing to feed myself and my family. 

I go on about this because it’s a recent theme of mine: the perils of a media culture that’s indifferent to truth. Thus my argument about truth as a commons; thus Operation Diogenes. I’m going to be mulling over these matters  often in the weeks or months to come. 

From my dear friend John Wilson:

Ever since I “discovered” book reviews, when I was in high school, I have been in love with this simple but infinitely flexible genre. Much of my adult life has been devoted to scouring publishers’ catalogues and other sources of information on forthcoming books, reviewing books myself and assigning them for review, editing reviews and seeing them into print, and of course reading thousands of reviews over the decades — a practice I will continue as long as I have my faculties. […] 

At the same time, I feel some reservations. When Nadya Williams invited me to lead off this series, she spoke of “the value/virtue of book reviews in this day and age,” and she added: “My thought is that we can encourage much more productive discussions about cultural crises using books than via provocative op-eds.” But I don’t want to encourage more discussion about “cultural crises”; in fact, I think much of our public conversation, across the ideological spectrum, is characterized by an obsessive focus on “cultural crises.” I’m not saying that these “crises” are simply manufactured (though certainly some of them are). Rather, I believe that endless talk about these crises characterizes public discourse to an unhealthy and extremely tedious degree. Of course, that is apparent not only in op-eds and essays and books claiming to unpack these “crises” but also in reviews. And yet the blessed range of reviewing ensures that such voices do not dominate. 

Amen to all this. But goodness, is it difficult to get many editors interested in books that aren’t somehow implicated in (or can somehow be shoehorned into) the American crisis discourse. 

Giorgio Agamben, Idea of Prose:

Study, in effect, is per se interminable. Those who are acquainted with long hours spent roaming among books, when every fragment, every codex, every initial encountered seems to open a new path, immediately left aside at the next encounter, or who have experienced the labyrinthine allusiveness of that “law of good neighbors” whereby Warburg arranged his library, know that not only can study have no rightful end, but does not even desire one.

Here the etymology of the word studium becomes clear. It goes back to a st- or sp- root indicating a crash, the shock of impact. Studying and stupefying are in this sense akin: those who study are in the situation of people who have received a shock and are stupefied by what has struck them, unable to grasp it and at the same time powerless to leave hold. The scholar, that is, is always “stupid.” But if on the one hand he is astonished and absorbed, if study is thus essentially a suffering and an undergoing, the messianic legacy it contains drives him, on the other hand, incessantly toward closure. This festina lente, this shuttling between bewilderment and lucidity, discovery and loss, between agent and patient, is the rhythm of study. 

John Warner:

Many are wailing that this technology spells “the end of high school English,” meaning those classes where you read some books and then write some pro forma essays that show you sort of read the books, or at least the Spark Notes, or at least took the time to go to Chegg or Course Hero and grab someone else’s essay, where you changed a few words to dodge the plagiarism detector, or that you hired someone to write the essay for you.

I sincerely hope that this is the end of the high school English courses that the lamentations are describing because these courses deserve to die, because we can do better than these courses if the actual objective of the courses is to help students learn to write.

projects and methods

Perhaps because I write different sorts of books, one of the most important writerly skills I have developed is the ability to adapt my working methods to the project at hand. Not every project calls for the same approach, the same model of organization, or the same tools.

For instance, when I was writing The Year of Our Lord 1943, with its five protagonists, the two most essential tools for me were (a) a color-coded timeline in Excel, so that I could see what each character was doing at any given time, and (b) a set of index cards. I had five protagonists so I got cards in five colors, and gradually accumulated information. Then, laying the cards out on a table or pinning them onto a cork board, I was able to understand the relations among those different pieces of information.

However, when I was writing How to Think I didn’t need that kind of system — I needed something very different. In that book, I had a sequential argument to make, one in which each chapter or section built upon the previous one. So I used OmniOutliner to lay out the whole argument in outline format, and then fill in the details.

When I was writing Breaking Bread with the Dead neither of those two methods would work for me. I was trying to create a kind of mosaic of ways in which we can encounter the past — a task that did not require and indeed did not admit a rigid argumentative or historical sequence. I had rather a set of portraits of people engaged in the complex activity that I call breaking bread with the dead, and each of those portraits needed to be coherent, vivid and, to some extent, self-contained. So in writing that book I just kept a set of text files open on my computer. I could go back and forth among them, but I didn’t need to do that very often, because each chapter had its own integrity. And on any given day, getting whatever chapter I was working on properly shaped was my primary task. 

But now I’m starting a new book. I’m not yet ready to talk about what it is, though I’ll get to that point before too much longer. For now, I’ll just say this: After fumbling around for a while to figure out how I could organize my thoughts in for this project, I realized that once again, the good old multicolored index cards were my best friends. And it’s actually been very pleasurable to go back and, for the first time in several years, build up a collection of cards and figure out how to relate them to one another. I use my own version of the Zettelkasten system, and maybe one day I’ll write a post about what that looks like.

But for now I just want to say that I think writers make a mistake when they try to use the same method, the same organizational system, for every book. The character of the project — its structure, its form, the demands it makes upon you as a writer — should determine the way you write the book. If you’re writing the same kind of book every time — like Robert Caro, for instance — then by all means use the same system. But if not, exercise your imagination! 

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two kinds of work

Almost forty years ago now, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote to a New York Times reporter to respond to critiques of his work and himself, most revolving around accusations of antisemitism. The whole article is interesting, but I am especially fascinated by the last sentence quotes from his letters:

My task is to write true historical research on the Russian Revolution, beyond that it’s not so important to me whether my books are accepted precisely in this decade and precisely in this country. 

Solzhenitsyn not only said this but, I think, truly believed it. He possessed a serene confidence that sooner or later his work would be recognized as both great and necessary, and if that recognition happened to come later rather than sooner — perhaps even long after this death — he didn’t mind. 

This strikes me as something that every writer ought to know about himself or herself: Am I writing for Now or for Keeps? Is it my role to shape my own moment, or to write primarily for those who might benefit from what I have to say even if they live after I’m gone? Of course, for many writers there’s not really an option: If you’re writing to pay your bills, then you have to write for Now whether you like it or not. 

I guess I’d like to have it both ways: To write for my contemporaries, to try to do my very small part to light candles and repair my corner of the world, but also to hope that I’ll have readers later on. But maybe you can’t have it both ways. (I wonder if there are examples of writers who thought that their work was immediate and ephemeral … but turned out to be wrong.) 

the blog as a seasoned technology

For several years now I’ve been writing about the distinctive virtues of blogging, which has become, I keep saying, a seasoned technology that promotes lateral thinking. When people start talking about the imminent collapse of Twitter — something that now looks like it won’t happen, and I’m inclined to bet that the next year will see a gradual return from Mastodon to Twitter — there was talk of the possibility of a blog renaissance. But I don’t think that will happen either. 

You have to have a peculiar kind of mind to enjoy blogging, and even those who have such a mind might prefer platforms that enable certain modes of interaction that blogging doesn’t make easy. (For instance, speedy exchanges.) I dislike those modes of interaction, and I love to blog, so I will continue to do this. 

But as Robin Sloan says in a comment I quoted the other day, “Publishing on the internet is a solved problem; finding each other on the internet, in a way that’s healthy and sustainable … that’s the piece that has never quite fallen into place.” A while back I asked a question about this: “How can I encourage readers of my blog to seek some of the benefits that I get from it?” 

I do increasingly feel like that Japanese guy who paints in Excel

and then?

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Illustration by my buddy Austin Kleon


As I mentioned in earlier posts, Noah Smith wants to outsource much of the process of writing, and Derek Thompson wants to outsource his research. In other news, Marina Koren is bothered by the slowness of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and her partner wants to watch the movie at 2X speed. Perhaps he also participates in the TikTok practice of listening to songs at double-speed

My question about all this is: And then? You rush through the writing, the researching, the watching, the listening, you’re done with it, you get it behind you — and what is in front of you? Well, death, for one thing. For the main thing. 

But in the more immediate future: you’re zipping through all these experiences in order to do what, exactly? Listen to another song at double-speed? Produce a bullet-point outline of another post that AI can finish for you? 

The whole attitude seems to be: Let me get through this thing I don’t especially enjoy so I can do another thing just like it, which I won’t enjoy either. This is precisely what Paul Virilio means when he talks about living at a “frenetic standstill” and what Hartmut Rosa means when he talks about “social acceleration.” 

I say: If you’re trying to get through your work as quickly as you can, then maybe you should see if you can find a different line of work. And if you’re trying to get through your leisure-time reading and watching and listening as quickly as you can, then you definitely do not understand the meaning of leisure and should do a thorough rethink. And in both cases maybe it would be useful to read Mark Helprin on “The Acceleration of Tranquility.” 

I like my job

Derek Thompson:

“These language models enable the automation of certain tasks that we’ve historically considered part of the creative process,” Olson told me. I couldn’t help but agree. Writing is less than half of my job; most of my work is reading and deciding what’s important enough for me to put in a paragraph. If I could train an AI to read as I do, and to determine significance as I do, I’d be essentially building a second mind for myself.

So Derek Thompson wants to oursource his research, and, as we saw yesterday, Noah Smith wants to outsource his writing. Is this boredom or frustration with the basic elements of their work universal among journalists these days?

I hope I’m not the only one, but just for the record: I like researching, and I like writing. I like the hard work of making my prose more clear and vivid. I like overcoming my ignorance. I like synthesizing the disparate things I read and then trying to present that synthesis to my readers. I like it all.

UPDATE: As I was walking this morning I suddenly understood the most fundamental thing that’s wrong with the way Smith and Thompson think about these matters: Smith assumes that at the outset of a writing project he already knows what he wants to say and just has to get it said; Thompson assumes at the outset of a writing project that he understands what he needs to know and just has to find a way to know it. But for me writing isn’t anything like that. For me writing is discovery, discovering what I need to say — which often is something I had no intention of saying when I set out. And some of the most important research I have ever done has been serendipitous: I have been looking for one thing and instead (or in addition) found something quite different, something I didn’t know I needed but, it turns out, is essential to me.

words: bashed

Noah Smith and “roon”:

It’s important to realize exactly why the innovations of the past didn’t result in the kind of mass obsolescence that people feared at the time.

The reason was that instead of replacing people entirely, those technologies simply replaced some of the tasks they did. If, like Noah’s ancestors, you were a metalworker in the 1700s, a large part of your job consisted of using hand tools to manually bash metal into specific shapes. Two centuries later, after the advent of machine tools, metalworkers spent much of their time directing machines to do the bashing. It’s a different kind of work, but you can bash a lot more metal with a machine.

Note the planted axioms here — the governing assumptions that the authors may not even know they’re making:

  1. That metalwork is neither an art nor a craft in which humans might take satisfaction but is simply a matter of “bashing” metal;
  2. That it’s better to direct machines to bash than to do one’s own bashing, because working with metal is drudgery but overseeing machines isn’t;
  3. That more metal-bashing is better than less metal-bashing.

I have, shall we say, some doubts about all those axioms. But let’s move on.

Consider the following, produced in the year 2322:

If, like Noah’s ancestors, you were a writer in the 2000s, a large part of your job consisted of using keyboards to manually bash characters into specific shapes. Two centuries later, after the advent of AI, writers spent much of their time directing machines to do the bashing. It’s a different kind of work, but you can bash a lot more characters with a machine.

What a utopian dream! No one has to write any more — no one has to think of what to say, to struggle for the best words in the best order, to strive to persuade or entertain. You just say, “Hey Siri, write me an essay on why there’s no reason to fear that AI will replace humans.”

Wait — I was being sardonic there but it turns out that that’s what Smith and roon really think:

Take op-ed writers, for instance – an example that’s obviously important to Noah. Much of the task of nonfiction writing involves coming up with new ways to phrase sentences, rather than figuring out what the content of a sentence should be. AI-based word processors will automate this boring part of writing – you’ll just type what you want to say, and the AI will phrase it in a way that makes it sound comprehensible, fresh, and non-repetitive. Of course, the AI may make mistakes, or use phrasing that doesn’t quite fit a human writer’s preferred style, but this just means the human writer will go back and edit what the AI writes.

In fact, Noah imagines that at some point, his workflow will look like this: First, he’ll think about what he wants to say, and type out a list of bullet points. His AI word processor will then turn each of these bullet points into a sentence or paragraph, written in a facsimile of Noah’s traditional writing style.

Behold: an image of the future of writing produced by a writer who quite obviously doesn’t like to write.

What seems to be missing here is the question of why the people who now pay Noah Smith to write wouldn’t just cut out the middleman, i.e., Noah Smith. Maybe that’s the future of Substack: AI drawing on a large corpus of hand-bashed text so that instead of paying Freddie deBoer to write I can just say, “Hey Substack, write me an essay on professional wrestling in the style of Freddie deBoer.” After all, people who write for Substack have limited time, limited energy, limited imagination, but AI won’t have any of those limits. It can bash infinitely more words.

I think Smith and roon don’t consider that possibility because they have another planted axiom, one that can be extracted from this line in their essay: our AI future “doesn’t mean humans will have to give up the practice of individual creativity; we’ll just do it for fun instead of for money.” But we will only do that if we have time and energy to do it, which we will have only have if we’re not busting our asses to make a living. Thus the final planted axiom: AI and human beings will flourish together in a post-scarcity world, like that of Iain M. Banks’s Culture novels.

the media ecology of college writing

Richard Gibson:

Practically speaking, GPT-3 and the like demand that educators reconsider the writing process in fundamental ways. Symons entertains the possibility of returning to handwriting; other commentators have suggested collecting drafts at multiple stages and perhaps tweaking the assignment between drafts. Educators are now administering the Turing test in reverse: What are questions that only humans can answer well? What kinds of thinking does writing make possible for us? 

In 1987, Flusser worried that AI would outstrip human writers, assuming responsibility even for the recording of history. The current crop of AIs pose no such threat, since they are not autonomous understandings but dynamic reflections of human-built textual culture. Their danger lies instead in short-circuiting the development of human writers, at least if educators fail to adapt to our new media ecology in which the medium can compose humdrum messages on demand. 

My dear friend Rick is precisely correct. Some years ago, when I noted the dramatic increase in professors’ use of services like Turnitin, it seemed obvious to me that students and teachers in the humanities — or rather, students and teachers as puppets of a parasitical online ecosystem of “educational services” — were entering a kind of arms race, and one that could never have a winner. I also saw that the entire arms race was made possible by the overwhelming dominance of one particular assignment: the research paper. And then I asked a question: What if I stopped assigning research papers? 

After all, my goal is not to make my students better writers of research papers. My goal is to help them grow more skilled and more confident as readers, writers, and reasoners. (My proximate goal, anyway; I have deeper aspirations for the enriching of their humanity, but those are better described as hopes than as goals.) If the dominance of this one genre is actually impeding my pedagogical purposes, then wouldn’t it be wise for me to look for other kinds of assignment that could enhance my students’ reading, writing, and reasoning without getting us all sucked into that arms race? 

I’ve been giving unusual writing assignments my whole career, but not in all my classes. When I taught literary theory I always had my students write dialogues, in each one ventriloquizing two major theorists; in some classes I’ve had students build websites; in others I’ve had them prepare critical editions of texts, with introductions and annotations. But until fairly recently I felt an obligation to teach the good old research paper in at least some classes. Around 2016, I think, I ceased to feel that obligation. I haven’t assigned a research paper since, and I don’t expect ever to assign another one. 

Pretty soon, I think, my entire profession will need to go through a process of reconsideration similar to the one I’ve already been through. 

a change of attention

After the killing of George Floyd, my first response — after sympathy for poor Floyd, I hope — was to think that the protesters were overreacting to an event that, while tragic, was not nearly as common as they were saying. (No, there’s no “Black genocide” in America.) But then I started noticing the response of many white conservatives: an opposite exaggeration, in their case of the dangers of protests; a noticeable lack of sympathy for the victims of police violence, and a tendency to blame those victims; and in general a disinclination to see racial prejudice as a meaningful element of American culture.

I wrote a few posts about all this, including one about the difference between acute and chronic suffering.

Similarly, when the whole controversy over Critical Race Theory blew up, my first reaction was dismay at the ways that “activists” were using shoddy scholarship, or wholly bogus pseudo-scholarship, to implement a radical political agenda for America’s schools. But then, again, the white conservative pushback was both uncharitable and extreme, and seemed determined to treat any reckoning with America’s history of slavery and racism as “CRT” and therefore to be banished. Increasingly, white conservatives took up the view that explicit declarations of hatred for people of a certain color is the only kind of racism there is.

This struck me as just as historically as blinkered and uninformed as, I dunno, maybe the views of the Black Hebrew Israelites. So, me being me, I started thinking about the past, listening to the voices of our ancestors — in this case mainly recent ones, which in my view is okay, because they always have a strong gravitational pull, and anyway people think that anything that they haven’t thought about in the past 72 hours is ancient history and therefore irrelevant. Ralph Ellison is as much a mystery to them as Homer.

But I’ve been reading Ralph Ellison — a lot of Ralph Ellison, letters and essays; and that led me to Murray’s dear friend Albert Murray, whose curious and wonderful body of work I’m seriously into. (After all, Murray is my fellow native of Alabama.) There’s a tradition of thought and expression here that seems deeply relevant to the current scene, capable of illuminating much that otherwise remains dark for us.

I posted a couple of passages relevant to all this stuff in a recent newsletter, and fifty or sixty people immediately unsubscribed. Okay, well, I guess that’s not really what my newsletter is about, so fair enough. But heads up: Here at the old blog you’ll be hearing more about some of the leading Black intellectuals of the past half-century or more. Because they’re fascinating in themselves — and they tend to illuminate our own weird moment.

So my thanks to white conservatives for leading me into this fertile field of reading and thinking. I owe you, guys.


You’ll probably not be shocked to learn that I agree with Adam about this. My agreement is on three grounds: 

First: If you want simply to tell — if you have a direct blunt message that you want to get across — there are genres for that: genres of expository and persuasive prose that have developed over the centuries for the specific purpose of communicating clear and straightforward messages. Whenever I read a didactic novel that tells me everything I am supposed to think about the story, I always think: Why did you write a novel, then? You’ve got all these “characters” and “events” getting in the way of your message. You’re not making your message better, you’re just making your story worse. Stories are best reserved for experiences and thoughts that simply won’t fit into the structure of an argument — this is, I think, what T. S. Eliot meant when he said that Henry James had “a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Eliot thought James distinctively attentive to those aspects of our experience that can’t be condensed into a solid idea. 

Second: If you know precisely what message you want your story to convey, then your story almost certainly will never convey anything more than you explicitly intended. Which is to say, you will never learn anything more from writing it than you knew when you started. For writers who think they already know everything there is to know, this may not be a problem.  

Third: If you know precisely what message you want your story to convey but are a little too artful, make it too lively, then your readers may draw conclusions you don’t want them to draw — see the experience of Bertolt Brecht as related in the final paragraph of this post. That gives you an incentive to make your story as rigid and simplistic as possible. Which means, again, you’re not making your message better, you’re just making your story worse. 

Finally, I think it worth noting that this critique of show-don’t-tell appeared on Twitter, which is populated largely by people who are vigorously hunting heresies and people who are desperately trying to avoid being labeled as heretics. I can’t bring myself to read the replies to Tade Thompson’s original tweet, but from Adam’s description it seems that many of them are more hostile to “showing” than Thompson is (after all, he allows writers sometimes to show). Being on Twitter might be the worst thing writers of fiction can do, because it habituates them to the fear of Error and promotes practices of declarative belligerence. It makes them terrified of any experience that can’t be condensed into a solid idea; and that diminishes them as writers and as persons. 

In a 1939 poem called “Our Bias,” Auden contrasts human beings to a lion or a rose — those creatures that simply are what they are and can’t be other:  

For they, it seems, care only for success:
While we choose words according to their sound
And judge a problem by its awkwardness;

And Time with us was always popular.
When have we not preferred some going round
To going straight to where we are?

Thomas Harrison:

Musil was not the only writer of his time to think of the essay as the method and intellectual mode most appropriate to ethical reflection. A predilection for this flexible genre had taken strong root by the end of the nineteenth century, with brilliant standards established by Søren Kierkegaard, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, and half a dozen prominent others. Their essays bent “positivistic” accounts of objective phenomena to the purposes of feeling and subjective need, to matters of spiritual and moral import. A loose manner of prose composition without fixed rules of method — incorporating aphorism, lyrical condensation, confession, invective, and satire — the essay straddled a spectrum along which Western metaphysics seemed to have arrayed two components of human experience: head and heart, science and art, truth and fiction, body and soul, law and desire.

This is why the essay is such a culturally vital and underrated genre, a topic on which I hope soon to write an … essay, I guess.  

[Some of you may have seen that I originally posted this as a screenshot from Instapaper, which was easy and looked pretty good … but because it was an image rather than text (a) the text so imaged didn’t resize properly in different-sized browser windows and (b) the content isn’t searchable. So I’m back to the usual way of posting. But I dunno, I might try again at some point; it not being searchable isn’t such a big deal if I have tags. The value for me is that it’s a way of sharing with less friction.] 

a parable

Almost all of Tolstoy’s early stories were published by a journal called The Contemporary. Some of them focused on the miseries — and also the human dignity — of the serfs, whose emancipation Tolstoy fervently advocated. (Indeed, he freed his own serfs — he was a nobleman and a landowner — some time before universal emancipation was proclaimed by Tsar Alexander.) But The Contemporary fell under the influence of Nikolai Chernyshevsky, who, while praising Tolstoy’s ability, chastised him for being insufficiently devoted to the most radical political positions. Tolstoy, unwilling to alter his writing to conform to Chernyshevsky’s demands for political purity, took his work elsewhere and became, along with his contemporary Dostoevsky, one of the two greatest writers of the nineteenth century. Chernyshevsky, meanwhile, took over The Contemporary and banished all writers who did not conform to his political preferences; after his death, though he was always a clunking and tub-thumping writer, he became a great influence — perhaps the greatest single influence — on V. I. Lenin. 

sequence, 2

  1. Read transcendentally stupid take online 
  2. Grab laptop, start banging out devastating takedown 
  3. Realize that ten thousand other people are doing the same and that many of their takedowns will be far more widely-read than mine 
  4. Set laptop aside 
  5. Pour myself another cup of coffee 
  6. Heave a contented sigh  

Remembering Fred Buechner

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My wife Teri and I first met Fred Buechner in 1984, when he came to Wheaton College for a ceremony acknowledging the donation of his papers to the college’s Special Collections. We only spoke briefly at that time, and my chief memory of our conversation is Fred’s passionate impromptu defense of Anthony Trollope as a great and deep novelist – not the relatively lightweight storyteller, the maker of fictional comfort food, that he is often said to be. I had not read Trollope at that time, and when I first sat down with his books I was glad to recall Fred’s words – they made me a better reader of that much-loved but still-underrated writer.

The next year Fred returned to Wheaton for an eight-week stint as a visiting professor, an adventure that he describes in the third of his series of brief memoirs, Telling Secrets. A couple of years earlier he had spent a term teaching homiletics at Harvard Divinity School, an experience he found always perplexing and sometimes discouraging:

Whatever may have bound my students together elsewhere in the way of common belief or commitment, I was much more aware of what divided them. It did not take me long to discover early in the game, as you might have thought I would have known before I came, that a number of them were Unitarian Universalists who by their own definition were humanist atheists. One of them, a woman about my age, came to see me in my office one day to say that although many of the things I had to teach about preaching she found interesting enough, few of them were of any practical use to people like her who did not believe in God. I asked her what it was she did believe in, and I remember the air of something like wistfulness with which she said that whatever it was, it was hard to put into words. I could sympathize with that, having much difficulty putting such things into words over the years myself, but at the same time I felt somehow floored and depressed by what she said. I think things like peace, kindness, social responsibility, honesty were the things she believed in – and maybe she was right, maybe that is the best there is to believe in and all there is – but it was hard for me to imagine giving sermons about such things. I could imagine lecturing about them or writing editorials about them, but I could not imagine standing up in a pulpit in a black gown with a stained glass window overhead and a Bible open on the lectern and the final chords of the sermon hymn fading away into the shadows and preaching about them. I realized that if ideas were all I had to preach, I would take up some other line of work.

This experience was still fresh in Fred’s mind when he came to Wheaton – and if you want to know what he thought about that event, well, you should read Telling Secrets, which is by any measure a beautiful book and more than worth reading even if you don’t care a fig about Harvard or Wheaton. 

Teri and I spent a good bit of time with Fred during that eight-week period: we went to the Wheaton Theater to see Return to Oz (the Oz books were always totemic and iconic for Fred); on weekends we traveled into Chicago to eat at fancy restaurants, meals for which Fred always paid, referring to himself as “the rich man from the east”; and two or three times we ate at a local restaurant that he somewhat comically grew attached to. It was called the Viking, and was a more or less standard Midwestern steakhouse with one peculiarity on the menu: they served a spinach salad that they would flame at your table. At one point a salad was set afire directly behind Teri and me, and we flinched forward in our seats as the flames warmed our necks, which caused Fred to lean over and whisper conspiratorially to Teri: “This is a dangerous restaurant.” (Fred loved Teri, in part because she was the same age as one of his daughters – he and his wife Judy had three daughters – and he would occasionally say to me, “I only put up with you because of your wife.”)

A year or so later, I think, the Viking was badly damaged in a fire, and since nothing could have been less surprising, I hastily wrote Fred a letter about it. The relevant portion of his reply:

And the fiery fate of the Viking! I can only hope that by now it is back in commission again. I remember with extraordinary pleasure – together with so many other things about my Wheaton weeks – my suppers there. Steak, medium rare, with a baked potato and salad, and a glass or two of red wine for the stomach’s sake. I would always bring a book to read as I ate, but most of the time I would just sit there feasting my eyes on my fellow diners and the flames from the various chafing dishes ablaze around me. Had I only thought to warn them.

On several occasions that semester I got to hear Fred read from his own work, and he was an absolutely marvelous reader. His writing was, I think, and this is true of most of the best writers, emergent from speech. He loathed excessive punctuation, and a sentence didn’t have to have a lot of punctuation for him to consider it excessive: he wanted the pauses and emphases to be clear from the words. Read that passage from Telling Secrets aloud; it’s a marvel of timing and rhythm, like the phrasing of a great jazz singer. Or consider this passage from what I think is his best novel, Son of Laughter – a retelling of the story of Jacob, who refers to YHWH as the Fear:

The unclean blood no longer clung to our hands, but the small gods clung still to our hearts. They clung with silver fingers, with fingerless hands of wood and baked clay. Like rats, the gods gibbered in our hearts about the rich gifts they have for giving to us. The gods give rain. The swelling udder they give and the sweet fig, the plump ear of grain, the ooze of oil. They give sons. To Laban they gave cunning. They give their names as the Fear, at the Jabbok, refused me his when I asked it, and a god named is a god summoned. The Fear comes when he comes. It is the Fear who summons. The gods give in return for your gifts to them: the strangled dove, the burnt ox, the first fruit. There are those who give them their firstborn even, the child bound to the altar for knifing as Abraham bound Isaac till the Fear of his mercy bade the urine-soaked old man unbind him. The Fear gives to the empty-handed, the empty-hearted, as to me from the stone stair he gave promise and blessing, and gave them also to Isaac before me, to Abraham before Isaac, all of us wanderers only, herdsmen and planters moving with the seasons as gales of dry sand move with the wind. In return it is only the heart’s trust that the Fear asks. Trust him though you cannot see him and he has no silver hand to hold. Trust him though you have no name to call him by, though out of the black night he leaps like a stranger to cripple and bless.

Fred was one of the great prose stylists of his era, and while I don’t write like him — I don’t have the skill, and in any case the sorts of things that I write about and the ways that I write about them demand a different style than he developed — I’ve learned a great deal about the writing of prose from him. He made me think about prose in a different way than I ever had before, and if I have ever managed to write well, I think I owe a lot of that success to Fred.

But the most important lessons that I learned from Fred, lessons I’m still learning from him, arise from his temperament as a Christian. Not his beliefs, specifically, but his manner of approaching God and approaching the world. It was open-minded, to be sure, but more than that it was open-hearted, and continually aware of the ways that the world, like the Fear who made the world, can both hurt us and bless us. (He and I shared a great love for the passage in Anna Karenina in which Kitty gives birth to her first child and Levin, the new father, immediately thinks: Now the world has so many more ways to hurt me.) Fred was always fascinated by the many ways the God who loves us can use both the wounds and the blessings to form and shape our very being. Fred manifested – and in some ways this is even more evident from his personality than from his writing – a kind of gently ironic but faithful and hopeful bemusement. It’s very hard to describe, but I found it enormously winning, and the absence of it from the world is I think a real loss.

We hadn’t often been in touch in the past fifteen years. Once, I sent him a copy of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book I deeply love and that I felt sure Fred would also love. He wrote back to tell me that he had read it and indeed loved it, though he went on to say that he had absolutely no idea what it was about. Correspondence languished after that, alas. I thought many times over the last few years of writing to him, but I didn’t know what kind of shape he was in, and I didn’t know whether our relationship had ever been close enough to deserve that. I now regret not having made connection, as one does. 

The last time Teri and I saw Fred and his quietly gracious wife Judy was at Calvin College some years ago, where Teri and Judy talked about their mutual love of horses. As we parted Judy asked Teri to come and ride with her sometime at their farm in Vermont, and of course that never happened, because Teri and I are the sort of people who are afraid of imposing, and fear that that sort of invitation might be pro forma rather than genuine. Now of course we wish we had put it to the test.

I am so thankful for Fred’s life and work and example, and I will miss him, and the world will miss him. May you rest in peace, good and faithful servant. 

One more tiny thing: One autumn day in 1985, Fred came to our shabby apartment because he wanted to see my recent acquisition: an original Macintosh, complete with an ImageWriter printer. (My mom, who worked in a bank, had arranged a loan for me — the two items cost nearly three thousand bucks, as much as a car, and a fifth of my annual salary. But I had a dissertation to write and a determination not to take forever doing it.) Fred was quite taken with these devices, and ordered his own when he got back to Vermont; so I always smiled when I got ImageWriter-printed letters from him, like this one: 

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Le Guin and forgiveness

Ursula K. Le Guin wrote very few bad stories, but among those few is, surely, The Word for World is Forest. And though she never called it a bad story, she knew that in it something had gone awry. In an introduction to the novella that she wrote some years after its first publication, she explains that she wrote it in a period in which she was much occupied with organizing and participating in demonstrations “first against atomic bomb testing, then against the pursuance of the war in Vietnam.” And these were not pleasant times for her, because the protests against atomic bomb testing proved futile, and the situation in Vietnam was only getting worse, and the deterioration of that situation was accompanied by an increase in and intensification of lies from the government. She writes,

It was from such pressures, internalized, that this story resulted: forced out, in a sense, against my conscious resistance. I have said elsewhere that I never wrote a story more easily, fluently, surely – and with less pleasure.

I knew, because of the compulsive quality of the composition, that it was likely to become a preachment, and I struggled against this.

In parts of the story, and some of the characters, she feels that she succeeded in her struggle. But not in the case of the villain of the piece, a man named Davidson, a pretty transparent representative of the American military in Vietnam, just moved to a different planet. “Davidson is, though not uncomplex, pure; he is purely evil – and I don’t, consciously, believe purely evil people exist. But my unconscious has other opinions. It looked into itself and produced, from itself, Captain Davidson. I do not disclaim him.”

Her refusal to “disclaim” – it’s an interesting word – a character whose over-simplicity she acknowledges is an important thing. It’s like Prospero on Caliban: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.” But it’s also a way of accepting the consequences of what, elsewhere in this same introduction, she designates as the strongest imperative of the artist: freedom.

She had sought and claimed for herself artistic freedom, the liberty to raise up characters from her own mind, and having exercised that liberty, she now sees that the results are not always what she would want, are not always admirable. Well. Such is freedom’s price. In the last paragraph of her introduction, she writes:

American involvement in Vietnam is now past; the immediately intolerable pressures have shifted to other areas; and so the moralizing aspects of the story are now plainly visible. These I regret, but I do not disclaim them either. The work must stand or fall on whatever elements it preserved of the yearning that underlies all specific outrage and protest, whatever tentative outreaching it made, amidst anger and despair, toward justice, or wit, or grace, or liberty.

That’s an extraordinarily complex statement, and, moreover, one that I think is relevant to our own moment. Because what Le Guin understood, especially later in her career, looking back on her story in retrospect, is that “of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing is ever made,” and therefore one’s own work will inevitably contain the residue of one’s own unresolved internal conflicts. And she forgives herself for any impurities in the story. (It’s noteworthy that she titled a later story-suite Five Ways to Forgiveness – I should do a post on those stories at some point.)

I have said before that our society is so miserable right now because it combines judgementalism with an inability to offer or receive forgiveness, which essentially means that every error is infinitely punishable. And it also means that in such an environment there can be no artistic freedom. Le Guin believed that a society in which artistic freedom is impossible is necessarily a sick society. And she was correct. 

It’s common these days to believe that strict scrutiny — to borrow a legal term — must be applied to imaginative works to be sure that no wrongthink is published. But what if that scrutiny also impedes works of major creativity, works that enable new worlds of thought and sympathy? Unlike people on Twitter, Le Guin was an adult, and understood that every decision involves trade-offs: freedom to imagine and write and publish means that some of what is imagined and published is regrettable — even one’s own imaginings. She counted and cost, made her decision, and lived with the consequences. Like an adult.  

the missing middle

Pop Culture Has Become an Oligopoly – by Adam Mastroianni:

In every corner of pop culture — movies, TV, music, books, and video games — a smaller and smaller cartel of superstars is claiming a larger and larger share of the market. What used to be winners-take-some has grown into winners-take-most and is now verging on winners-take-all. The (very silly) word for this oligopoly, like a monopoly but with a few players instead of just one. 

Remember when we were looking forward to the era of the Long Tail? Nah, that didn’t happen. At least not in the way predicted. We do, praise God, have unprecedented access to art, books, music, movies — but we often get to choose between the colorless tasteless mega-productions of the oligopoly or very small things made at the cultural and economic margins. 

This works out differently in different art forms, and I want to think more about the details. But it does seem to me that there’s a kind of squeezing-out of the middle. The midlist author is disappearing — heck, in another time and place I might well have been a midlist author, but I could never sell enough books in the current environment to make a living. Also, it seems that only a few bands — good old-fashioned guitar/keyboards/bass/drum bands — can afford to tour any more, and most of those are comprised of people over sixty. Younger musicians tend to work solo or duo, or form short-term collaborations, and thick musical textures tend to be developed (when they’re developed all) through digital instrumentation rather than through people learning how to play together. The new economics of art has been hard on all musical genres, but especially, I think, on jazz. Which was struggling anyway.  

Obviously you can’t generalize too grossly here; the situation in the visual arts is rather different. But in many art forms, it seems to me, we have the massive-in-scale and massive-in-popularity and small-in-scale and small-in-popularity — and not much in between. 


I like this from my buddy Austin Kleon: A solution to writer’s block: Transcribe yourself — I do something similar, though not for writer’s block, because that’s an affliction I have never experienced. (“More’s the pity,” some of you are saying.) I use dictation as a means of generating unfiltered ideas, and transcription of the audio files as a way of filtering the ideas I’ve generated.

But I don’t use my phone. I use this:

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Why use a separate device when I could use my phone? Because this thing ain’t connected to the internet. When I’m sitting down to do some serious reading, I don’t want any internet-connected device within reach. If I have a thought about something in a book, I grab this little recorder, note the book and the page, and briefly describe the idea. Sometimes I read a relevant passage into the mic.

Many people want a way of recording ideas that has less friction — for instance, they want a device that will transcribe their spoken thoughts for them. There are times when I use such services (Dragon is great), but I avoid them in my idea-generating phase because I think friction is my friend. It helps me a lot to have my thoughts on a device that I just have to listen to. When I do my weekly review sessions, usually on Monday mornings, I go through all the little audio files I’ve recorded in the past week to listen for ideas that have some value. Then I type out clarified and condensed versions of them, which makes them usable for essays or posts. Again: unfiltered recording, filtered transcription.

book review ethics

When my biography of C. S. Lewis came out in 2005, I was inexperienced enough as a writer of trade books that I actually read most of the reviews. I have become wiser in my declining years, but I still often think of something I learned from that experience.

I remember one review in particular, which was not negative so much as airily dismissive. The reviewer treated my book as something without any real interest, and then went on to write at length about Lewis … using information he had gained from my book. And in some cases echoing judgments I had made. (I know this because the particular information and the particular judgments he employed were not found in earlier books on Lewis.) He assumed the mantle of a writer so knowledgeable about Lewis that he could toss my book aside, but apparently knew little about Lewis that he didn’t learn from me. 

Since I read that piece, I have been aware of the danger of using the task of reviewing to give a false sense of your own expertise. First of all, I have tried never to fall into that trap myself — it’s easy to do if you’re not careful — and then I have kept my eyes peeled for further examples. It’s rather discouraging how often I see it. Typically it turns up in those (tragically few) journals that still publish extensive review-essays: the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, occasionally the Times Literary Supplement. You start reading one of these reviews and after a short time it becomes impossible to tell whether the writer is employing his or her own expertise or rather is cribbing from the book under review.

There ought to be some code of reviewing ethics that requires reviewers to let us know when they are writing things that they knew before they read the book under review and when they are paraphrasing and summarizing that book. Estimated percentage of the knowledge I exhibit in this review that I got from the book I’m reviewing: 73. That kind of thing. I haven’t done anything quite that specific, but at times I have said something along these lines: “Almost everything I know about this subject I learned from this book.” I wish this were a more common practice. 

too good not to be true?

Now that the semester is over, I am plugging away on my volume on Paradise Lost for Princeton’s Lives of Great Religious Books series. Right now I’m writing about Milton’ reputation during his own lifetime, and several times I have come across a delicious quotation from his fellow poet Edmund Waller, who wrote in a letter that “the old, blind schoolmaster, John Milton, hath published a tedious poem on the Fall of Man — if its length be not considered a merit, it hath no other.” Delicious! But: the quotation may not be authentic. I have been working diligently to track it down, and as far as I can discover, the first time it appears is in an 1811 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine, in an article about Anna Seward, a poet who had recently died: 

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(History, I think it’s fair to say, has not seconded Seward’s comparison of Milton and Southey.) I’ve looked for Waller’s letters, and while some survive – he had an interesting correspondence with Thomas Hobbes — I can’t find one that contains this quotation. I’m almost tempted to use it anyway and if challenged plead ignorance; it would make such an excellent epigraph to the chapter I’m writing. 

From David Copperfield, Chapter XV:

Mr. Dick and I soon became the best of friends, and very often, when his day’s work was done, went out together to fly the great kite. Every day of his life he had a long sitting at the Memorial, which never made the least progress, however hard he laboured, for King Charles the First always strayed into it, sooner or later, and then it was thrown aside, and another one begun. The patience and hope with which he bore these perpetual disappointments, the mild perception he had that there was something wrong about King Charles the First, the feeble efforts he made to keep him out, and the certainty with which he came in, and tumbled the Memorial out of all shape, made a deep impression on me. What Mr. Dick supposed would come of the Memorial, if it were completed; where he thought it was to go, or what he thought it was to do; he knew no more than anybody else, I believe. Nor was it at all necessary that he should trouble himself with such questions, for if anything were certain under the sun, it was certain that the Memorial never would be finished. It was quite an affecting sight, I used to think, to see him with the kite when it was up a great height in the air. What he had told me, in his room, about his belief in its disseminating the statements pasted on it, which were nothing but old leaves of abortive Memorials, might have been a fancy with him sometimes; but not when he was out, looking up at the kite in the sky, and feeling it pull and tug at his hand. He never looked so serene as he did then. I used to fancy, as I sat by him of an evening, on a green slope, and saw him watch the kite high in the quiet air, that it lifted his mind out of its confusion, and bore it (such was my boyish thought) into the skies. As he wound the string in and it came lower and lower down out of the beautiful light, until it fluttered to the ground, and lay there like a dead thing, he seemed to wake gradually out of a dream; and I remember to have seen him take it up, and look about him in a lost way, as if they had both come down together, so that I pitied him with all my heart. 

I identify with Mr. Dick. I think if I could take all this stuff I write and make a kite from it, I’d be happier … as long as I could keep the kite aloft. 


Interesting convo at micro.blog about what people use to take notes. Me? 

  • Handwriting in notebooks (usually Leuchtturm) 
  • Marginal commentary and sticky notes in books 
  • Voice notes in .mp3 format (the plain text of audio) 
  • Plain text notes on the computer 

I want my notes to be future-proof and platform-agnostic. 


B. D. McClay:

It’s natural to find the thought that what we build in our life will die with us disturbing. (Though forms of its lasting can also be distressing; in his poem “Posterity,” Philip Larkin imagines being summed up by an irritated, unenthusiastic future biographer with “Oh, you know the thing / That crummy textbook stuff from Freshman Psych.”) No one wants to die. To ourselves, we matter, and we want what we do to matter to somebody else. We want our sacrifices to be worth it in a transcendent sense, our pain to have a purpose, our achievements to be permanent. A handful of life paths — intellectual and artistic work in particular — are about trying to create, as Horace wrote, “a monument more lasting than bronze.” They are a calculated gamble that a life dedicated to the difficult and narrow path will continue after our death, however unrewarding it might have been to experience. […] 

Most scholarship is also not going to live forever. Is it therefore not worth doing? I wouldn’t say so. It’s worth it to maintain gardens and repair buildings and restore artworks. No one’s work lives forever on its own. It stays alive because someone keeps it so. Here again, greatness requires humility: other people’s. The task of thinking is worthwhile even if your thoughts prove to be of limited usefulness. The tasks of reading, of appreciation, of interpretation, are worthwhile, even if next year there is a new essay that supersedes yours, or a new book. If we have chosen to live our lives this way, it is because something about it strikes us as the best way we can spend our time. 

When I was in graduate school I read a book by a scholar named Michael O’Loughlin with the unwieldy title The Garlands of Repose: The Literary Celebration of Civic and Retired Leisure: The Traditions of Homer and Vergil, Horace and Montaigne. I was greatly taken with it. Before I read that book, it had never occurred to me that there could be different kinds of leisure, with different purposes, different characters; nor had I thought about just how essential leisure is to human culture. (Maybe O’Loughlin hadn’t thought about that either, before reading Josef Pieper.) I also loved the way O’Loughlin identified thematic harmonies that linked works written over a period of 2000 years. It seemed to me a model of what my own literary criticism could be. 

When I read the book, I was expecting to become a specialist in seventeenth-century literature, but my path veered in a different direction, so I have rarely had the opportunity, over the years, to cite it. But it has had a lasting effect on my thinking. For instance, it has deeply informed the way I read W. H. Auden, that most Horatian of modern poets. My critiques of technocracy and my interest in “repairing the world” stem from a belief that one of the best things we can do for our culture, and for those who join it after us, is to create a space for healthy leisure. Even my recent thinking about Taoism is influenced by what I read in The Garlands of Repose all those years ago. 

Another way to put that is to say that O’Loughlin’s book — I believe the only one he ever published — became a part of my intellectual DNA. And maybe something I write will spark something for a reader — a scholar or a writer or a pastor or teacher or who knows what — and become part of her DNA. Maybe she’ll never quote me — maybe she’ll never even realize that she wouldn’t have had that idea if she hadn’t read my essay — but in that way my thought will become part of someone else’s intellectual genome, and through her will make some difference in the world. If so, then her thought will be indebted to a scholar she probably has never have heard of: Michael O’Loughlin. 

As with my writing, so with my teaching. Maybe some word of mine will become a part of a student’s intellectual or moral or spiritual inheritance, and in that way play a role in his life, and then, through his influence, in the lives of others. Just as my own voice is shaped and formed by the voices of others — Bakhtin taught me this — so others will appropriate for themselves and their purposes ideas they first heard in my voice.  

I don’t expect that anyone will be reading my stuff after I die — I expect that I’ll be wholly forgotten before I die, if I live to a good age — but I almost never think about that. At the end of Middlemarch George Eliot says of Dorothea that “the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts,” and that captures better than I can my convictions on this point. Diffusive is the key word: an influence that subtly spreads, perhaps without anyone noticing. I find that model of influence more encouraging and comforting than any hopes for fame could ever be.  

The 9 Biggest Myths About Nonfiction Trade Publishing, Debunked. These are all spot-on. I would only add that even when you get a larger advance, it’s typically divided into either three or four installments. So, for instance, I’ve had some divided this way:

  • First part on signing the contract
  • Second part on delivering a complete manuscript
  • Third part on publication of the hardcover
  • Fourth part on publication of the paperback

You can’t “live off your big advance” when you only have a quarter of that advance — or maybe a third (the divisions aren’t always equal) — during the period of writing.

two quotations on age

Orson Welles:

It’s only in your twenties and in your seventies and eighties that you do the greatest work. The enemy of society is the middle class, and the enemy of life is middle age. Youth and old age are great times — and we must treasure old age and give genius the capacity to function in old age — and not send them away. 

M. John Harrison

The idea you have when you’re young, to reach the edge of what can be done with your abilities and find out what might happen if you went past it? You promise yourself you’ll try but then wake up fifty years later to discover that you were in fact always too sensible to push things until they fell over, in case people thought less of you. In your seventies, though, it doesn’t seem to matter any more what other people think. That’s probably the first phase of your life in which you can actually do what you want. And certainly the last.

The Monday morning ritual: reviewing whatever inchoate ideas emerged during the past week and putting the useful ones in a text file. Sometimes I write by hand, sometimes I dictate thoughts, sometimes I type them. My so-much-missed dog Malcolm is on the cover of my notebook because I want to be like him: calm, sweet, and always a pleasure to be around. (He was also beautiful, but I don’t aspire to that.)

two kinds of writer

the design of time – by Sara Hendren:

The learner, whether student or reader, can come with you from their current zone, what they already know, to the next developmental place. But if you try to jump them further than that place — beyond [Lev Vygotsky’s] Zone of Proximal Development, too fast or too carelessly — you’re likely to lose them. Not because folks aren’t sophisticated or smart or even willing. It’s just a simple fact of cognitive load and scaffolding: To introduce a novel or surprising idea, you have to build the conceptual bridge from what’s provisionally shared to the new and unexpected.

I think about this all the time. Who are my readers, and what assumptions might already be in their minds, and what’s the next possible leap we could make together? I didn’t think the audience for an article about time and design in a pandemic could travel all the way with me to crip time. It’s there in the disability literature for folks who want to go deeper but couldn’t be seamlessly reached in my piece.

It’s not as if all reading is teaching in a unidirectional, condescending way, from writer to reader — far from it. Every writer is writing precisely to think through and try to understand some set of ideas better, for her own sake as well as the reader. But the Zone should still be in one’s mind, no matter your narrative medium. And too often writers get tied up in an inside-baseball version of their topic, because the tacit reader in their mind’s eye is their peers: the people they speak to in professional development contexts, or the other books in their field, or their various social circles. But the scaffolding for a wider audience requires a much more rigorous attention to the Zone of PD — if, that is, you want to reach the reader who’s not already with you.

I love this whole post from Sara. But it occurs to me that there really aren’t very many writers who are interested in reaching the reader who’s not already with them — maybe, even, fewer today than in the past. When you (consciously or unconsciously) perceive the business of writing and reading as the consolidation of group identity, then reaching out to the unconvinced is not only difficult but perhaps undesirable.


I made an interesting discovery yesterday. (I’m sure others have already noticed it, but the insight is new to me.) Many readers will know this famous passage from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”: 

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n****r,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

I have taught this essay many, many times over the years, and I have always zeroed in on this passage as an excellent illustration of the use of imitative form. King wants his (largely white) readers to know what it feels like to wait … and wait … and wait … — so he makes those readers wait … and wait … and wait … for the conclusion of the 316-word sentence that’s at the heart of this paragraph.  

Here’s my discovery. Right now I’m teaching Frederick Douglass’s Narrative, and in the final chapter of that mesmerizing book he writes this, an account of his experience as an escaped slave in the North when the Fugitive Slave Act was in effect: 

I have been frequently asked how I felt when I found myself in a free State. I have never been able to answer the question with any satisfaction to myself. It was a moment of the highest excitement I ever experienced. I suppose I felt as one may imagine the unarmed mariner to feel when he is rescued by a friendly man-of-war from the pursuit of a pirate. In writing to a dear friend, immediately after my arrival at New York, I said I felt like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions. This state of mind, however, very soon subsided; and I was again seized with a feeling of great insecurity and loneliness. I was yet liable to be taken back, and subjected to all the tortures of slavery. This in itself was enough to damp the ardor of my enthusiasm. But the loneliness overcame me. There I was in the midst of thousands, and yet a perfect stranger; without home and without friends, in the midst of thousands of my own brethren — children of a common Father, and yet I dared not to unfold to any one of them my sad condition. I was afraid to speak to any one for fear of speaking to the wrong one, and thereby falling into the hands of money-loving kidnappers, whose business it was to lie in wait for the panting fugitive, as the ferocious beasts of the forest lie in wait for their prey. The motto which I adopted when I started from slavery was this — “Trust no man!” I saw in every white man an enemy, and in almost every colored man cause for distrust. It was a most painful situation; and, to understand it, one must needs experience it, or imagine himself in similar circumstances. Let him be a fugitive slave in a strange land — a land given up to be the hunting-ground for slaveholders — whose inhabitants are legalized kidnappers — where he is every moment subjected to the terrible liability of being seized upon by his fellowmen, as the hideous crocodile seizes upon his prey! — I say, let him place himself in my situation — without home or friends — without money or credit — wanting shelter, and no one to give it — wanting bread, and no money to buy it, — and at the same time let him feel that he is pursued by merciless men-hunters, and in total darkness as to what to do, where to go, or where to stay, — perfectly helpless both as to the means of defence and means of escape, — in the midst of plenty, yet suffering the terrible gnawings of hunger, — in the midst of houses, yet having no home, — among fellow-men, yet feeling as if in the midst of wild beasts, whose greediness to swallow up the trembling and half-famished fugitive is only equalled by that with which the monsters of the deep swallow up the helpless fish upon which they subsist, — I say, let him be placed in this most trying situation, — the situation in which I was placed, — then, and not till then, will he fully appreciate the hardships of, and know how to sympathize with, the toil-worn and whip-scarred fugitive slave. 

A brilliant paragraph ending with a 239-word sentence that does exactly what MLK’s still-longer sentence would do more than a century later. I can’t help but think that MLK had this passage from Douglass in mind, if only unconsciously. Where Douglass uses dashes MLK uses semicolons; where Douglass uses “let him” MLK uses “when” — but the strategy and the effect are the same: holding the reader at a point of tension that the writer will offer release from only when the point is well-made. (The ultimate example of this strategy is Wagner’s use of the Tristan chord, which he resolves after fours hours or so, but only a madman would take the business that far.) “Notice how tense you were as you were waiting for the conclusion to that sentence? Imagine that intensified and prolonged by a factor of ten thousand.”   

literary journalism

In the preface to Continuities, a collection of his reviews and essays written for magazines, the late great Frank Kermode makes a strong assertion: “Good literary journalism is valuable and rare…. [T]o dismiss it as irremediably ephemeral, and at the same time to promote the preservation of the average doctoral dissertation, is to fall into what could very well be named ‘the common cant’.”  

One of the essays in the book concerns Edmund Wilson, and in that preface Kermode uses the example of Wilson to illustrate his point:

Wilson can deal justly with other writers without neglecting the meditative movement of his own mind, and he can satisfy, without loss of intellectual integrity, the nonspecialist’s urgent and entirely proper demand for amenity of exposition and fine texture. This is the kind of journalism I call valuable and rare. It is rare not because those who could easily do it have better things to do, but because it is more demanding than most of what passes for scholarship. It calls incessantly for mental activity, fresh information, and civility into the bargain. Of course I agree that they do not always come. 

I’ve written a lot of literary journalism and will continue to do so — for instance, I have an essay-review on Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Crossroads coming out in Harper’s in a couple of months — and I couldn’t agree more with Kermode’s general commendation. Literary journalism is often belittled by academics who haven’t tried to write it and couldn’t write it if they tried. To speak to interested nonspecialists “without loss of intellectual integrity” is an extremely difficult challenge, and while it’s not for me to say whether I have ever managed it, I have certainly made every effort to do so. And that effort seems to me not only worthwhile but often more worthwhile than to publish one more article for a scholarly journal. (Though of course many universities, including my own, don’t recognize the value of such work. My essay on Franzen will not “count” as scholarship because it’s not peer-reviewed.) 

I especially admire Kermode’s list of the desiderata of good literary journalism: “mental activity, fresh information, and civility.” 

editing tools

The kind of work I’m doing right now — my critical edition of Auden’s book The Shield of Achilles — is somewhat unusual, but some readers might be interested in the tools I’m using to get it done.

The first thing I did was to go to AbeBooks and order four copies of early editions of the book, two of the American edition (Random House) and two of the British (Faber). These need to be scrupulously compared for differences.

I selected one of them — the earliest, which means an American edition (the book came out here several months before it did in the U.K.) — and made it my working copy. Before annotating it, I took photos of every page of the book. Then I went through the book with a highlighter, marking every word or phrase that I believe will require annotation.

I grabbed a pencil and, on the pages and on sticky notes, made initial comments on ideas that need to go into my Introduction, calling attention to related passages.

Then I returned to the photos of the text. I opened the Photos app on my Mac, navigated to the photo of the first page, and typed the keyboard shortcut I use to invoke TextSniper. TextSniper is a fabulous app. When you invoke it you get an area-selection tool. Draw a rectangle around any text on your screen and TextSniper OCRs the text and copies it to your clipboard. There are other ways I could do this: for instance, I could scan the book into a PDF and then use an app like PDFpen to OCR the whole text. But that brings in a lot of extraneous material, for instance anything in the pages’ headers and footers. With TextSniper I get precisely the text I want — and it is the most accurate OCR tool I have ever used, by a long shot. So Photos to TextSniper to BBEdit — and very shortly I had a complete text of the book to work from.

Next: Markup — in Markdown. In this case basically headings and italics — pretty simple work that only took a few minutes. I went from a bunch of digital photos to a clean, accurate working text in little more than half an hour.

As soon as you start the work of textual editing you need to generate comments (about formatting, for instance) and queries for the eventual copy editor. And since Microsoft Word is the lingua franca of publishing, I therefore had to convert my Markdown file to Word. Most of the time I use pandoc for such conversions, but I find that Brett Terpstra’s Marked does a better job of preserving line breaks — and a book of poems has a lot of line breaks.

(So why not just paste the OCR’d text directly into Word, instead of using a text file as the intermediate stage? Because, as you surely know, structuring text in Word is a nightmare. You try to turn one line into a header and Word decides to make the next paragraph part of the header and change the typeface of the previous paragraph. And then you can’t figure out how to fix it. A plain-text file structured with Markdown is precise. My primary governing rule of writing and text-editing: Never open Word until you absolutely have to.)

Okay, so then I had my accurate, ready-to-be-annotated text in a Word file. Which left me with one final workflow problem to solve: adding the annotations, which in the published edition will appear at the end of the text. There are several ways to do this, involving split screens or external monitors or even second computers. But here’s what I did: I got out my little-used iPad and connected it to my MacBook Air with Sidecar. Now I can look at the Word file of the book’s text on the iPad and add annotations in BBEdit on the Mac. Baby, I got a stew going!

R.I.P. Larry McMurtry

Whatever you think of McMurtry as a writer, it’s worth reflecting on this plain fact: No other writer has ever had a career remotely like his, and no writer ever again will have such a career. The bookshops, the Hollywood screenplays, the novels pounded out on a manual typewriter — and a single dominant theme, something he recognized early on: 

In their youth, as I have said, my uncles sat on the barn and watched the last trail herds moving north — I sat on the self-same barn and saw only a few oil-field pickups and a couple of dairy trucks go by. That life died, and I am lucky to have found so satisfying a replacement as Don Quixote offered. And yet, that first life has not quite died in me — not quite. I missed it only by the width of a generation and, as I was growing up, heard the whistle of its departure. Not long after I entered the pastures of the empty page I realized that the place where all my stories start is the heart faced suddenly with the loss of its country, its customary and legendary range. 

And that is a theme no writer will ever again have, either. 

“It’s always a good idea to go to Texas, if you can’t think of anything else to do.” — so says Winfield Gohagen, in McMurtry’s novel Somebody’s Darling. Sage advice. I took it myself. 

biographies and brands

This is a fascinating essay by my friend Charles Marsh. For me, there are two major elements of fascination, and I want to take them one at a time.

One: The experience Charles describes – mainly in the central section of his essay – of responses to his book Strange Glory from certain other Bonhoeffer scholars is eerily familiar to me as a biographer of C. S. Lewis. When my biography came out, a number of Lewis scholars wrote reviews, or wrote to me personally, to tell me that I had made terrible factual errors. My skin crawled when I heard those charges; I feared exposure of my inadequacies and subsequent humiliation; but then when with trembling fingers I grabbed my books and checked to see whether I had indeed failed so badly, I discovered that in almost every case I had not. Most of what they called factual errors on my part were simply differences of opinion or interpretation; they were so wedded to their view of Lewis that they could not see disagreement with it as anything but falsehood. In other cases they confidently corrected statements I made, but obviously did so from memory, without checking the relevant sources. From one person I got a twenty-page printout listing errors I had made, which in panic I went over with a fine-toothed comb and discovered that not one accusation of error in the entire twenty pages was accurate. (My book does of course contain errors, some of them embarrassing to me; but oddly enough, my confident critic tended to miss those.) 

After a period of receiving these letters and reviews with decreasing panic, I finally came to realize that while the responses claimed to be identiying errors, they really had nothing at all to do with truth or falsehood in scholarship. They were statements by people who perceived themselves to be the faithful custodians of the C. S. Lewis brand — note the title of Charles’s essay — and to them I was an outsider to that custodianship. When they said that Jacobs makes many factual errors, they weren’t even really making a truth claim, they were uttering a spell to ward off the stranger. They were placing me outside their Inner Ring. Once I understood that this was no scholarly endeavor but rather a ritual for maintaining group purity, I stopped worrying about what they said about me.

It seems to me that Charles is in a similar situation, especially with regard to Ferdinand Schlingensiepen, whose criticisms of Strange Glory are inconsistent – he can’t seem to decide whether the flaw of Charles’s book is that it’s too creative or not creative enough – when they aren’t extravagantly petty. From my distance I can’t be sure, of course, but Schlingensiepen certainly looks like a Guardian of the Brand. Charles is outside that Inner Ring. Again and again Charles shows that the accusations of major error are incorrect – of course he made some minor ones, as we all do – but to Guardians of the Brand that will not matter. They have uttered their spell. I think Charles will simply have to content himself with having written an outstanding biography that engages with constant critical sympathy one of the major theological figures of the 20th century, and tells a fascinating story to boot.

Two: The second theme, and one I want to keep thinking about, is Charles’s observation that there are very few good biographies of theologians. This strikes me as being absolutely true, and somewhat worrisome. Too many theological biographies are, as Bethge’s biography of Bonhoeffer was, mere chronicles: useful, informative, but neither illuminating nor inspiring. I can think of a couple of others, which I shall not name here, that aspire to be something more but are dragged down by a turgid prose style. The great theologians need and deserve vivid narratives, but vividness in storytelling is not a virtue that many theologians possess. So perhaps the biographies of theologians will need to be written by non-theologians, except in those rare cases when someone like Charles can be found: learned in his field but also with writerly gifts.  

There is another potential issue, related to the matter of Brands: the great theologians tend to be controversial figures — founders of schools and therefore, indirectly, of counter-schools. In relation to the inevitable disputes, the biographer must offer a mere chronicle, as noted above; or take sides (explicitly or implicitly); or find a way to fend off readers who might think that he or she is taking sides. Navigating such obstacles doesn’t often make for a well-told tale, which is why Guardians of the Brand never write good biographies. But: disputes occur in other fields too. There aren’t many philosophers more controversial than Bertrand Russell and Wittgenstein, and yet Ray Monk’s biographies of them are absolutely masterful. How wonderful it would be if Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar and John Webster and Robert Jenson all found their Ray Monk. 

All this makes me want to write a biography of a theologian. Unfortunately I don’t know much about theologians.