The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Excellent book by Richard Rothstein detailing the systematic, de jure segregation imposed on America by its institutions (not de facto but rather de jure, or enforced by law). He layers example after example on you, each page weighing the argument more and more, drumbeats that refuse to back away from this egregious history. Citing examples in San Francisco, Richmond, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, etc. he builds his argument from decades of research.

Lots of other crazy bits are inside, like the 1917 campaign promoted by the Department of Labor in response to the terrifying 1917 Russian revolution: an “Own-Your-Own-Home” campaign where “We Own Our Own Home” buttons were handed out to schoolkids and pamphlets distributed saying it was a patriotic duty to stop renting.

Conversations with Kafka

Gustav Janouch’s beautiful and odd memoir of his walks around Prague with Kafka when he was a young boy and his father worked alongside Kafka at the Workmen’s Accident Insurance Institution. Janouch was a budding writer himself and took careful notes of their meetings which later resulted in this book. Naturally you can’t assume these aphorisms dropped perfectly formed from Kafka’s lips into this book, but his spirit infuses this naturally flawed account of their relationship. Translated by Goronwy Rees, it’s choc-a-bloc filled with pithy sayings and wisdom. Apologies in advance for cribbing so much to paste in here.

Speaking of the writer Paul Adler, Janouch asks Kafka what his profession is. “He has none. He has no profession, only a vocation. He travels with his wife and the children from one friend to another. A free man, and a  poet. In his presence I always have pangs of conscience, because I allow my life to be frittered away in an office.”

“It’s not Treml, but I, who am in the cage… not only in the office, but everywhere. I carry the bars within me all the time.”

“For human beings the natural life is a human life. But men don’t always realize that. They refuse to realize it. Human existence is a burden to them, so they dispose of it in fantasies.”

“The false illusion of a freedom achieved by external means is an error, a confusion, a desert in which nothing flourishes except the two herbs of fear and despair. That is inevitable, because anything which has a real and lasting value is always a gift from within. Man doesn’t grow from below upwards but from within outwards..”

“You don’t realize how much strength there is in silence. Aggression is usually only a disguise which conceals one’s weakness from oneself and from the world. Genuine and lasting strength consists in bearing things.”

“Can one predict how one’s heart will beat tomorrow? No, it’s not possible. The pen is only a seismograph pencil for the heart. It will register earthquakes, but can’t predict them.”

Discussing poetry vs. literature, “Poetry is a condensate, an essence. Literature is a relaxation, a means of pleasure which alleviates the unconscious life, a narcotic… Poetry is exactly the opposite. Poetry is an awakening [that tends towards prayer].”

“We live in an evil time, that is clear from the fact that nothing is called by its right name any more… It’s as if ideas had lost their kernel and were simply manipulated like empty nutshells… We live in a morass of corroding lies and illusions, in which terrible and monstrous things happen, which journalists report with amused objectivity and thus—without anyone noticing—trample on the lives of millions of people as is they were worthless insects.”

“Most men indeed don’t really live at all. They cling to life like little polyps to a coral reef. But in doing so men are far worse off than those primitive organisms. For them, there’s no firm barrier reef to ward off the breakers. They haven’t even a shell of their own to live in. All they can do is to emit an acid stream of bile, which leaves them even weaker and more helpless, because it divides them from their fellows.”

I’m always interested in how authors/philosophers overlap, so I loved what Kafka said: “Schopenhauer is an artist in language. That is the source of his thinking. For the language alone, one must not fail to read him.”

On whether people matter as individuals: “The level of the masses depends on the consciousness of individuals.”

“We are going through a hopeless decline. One look out of the window will show the world to you. Where are the people going? What do they want? We no longer recognize the metaphysical order of things. In spite of all the noise, everyone is dumb and isolated within himself. The interrelation of objective and personal values doesn’t function any more. We live not in a ruined but a bewildered world. Everything creaks and rattles like the rigging of an unseaworthy sailing ship. The misery [that you see] is only the surface expression of a much deeper distress.”

On Taylorism, the measurement of time and division of labor as enslavement of mankind: “Such a violent outrage can only end in enslavement to evil. It is inevitable. Time, the noblest and most essential element in all creative work, is conscripted into the net of corrupt business interests. Thereby not only creative work, but man himself, is polluted and humiliated. A Taylorized life is a terrible curse which will give rise to hunger and misery instead of the intended wealth and profit… One can say nothing. One can only scream, stammer, choke. The conveyor belt of life carries one somewhere—but one doesn’t know where. One is a thing, an object, rather than a living organism.”

“As a flood spreads wider and wider, the water becomes shallower and dirtier. The Revolution evaporates, and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy. The chains of tormented mankind are made out of red tape.”

“Language clothes what is indestructible in us, a garment which survives us.”

“Lying demands the heat of passion. For that reason, it reveals more than it conceals. I am not capable of that. So for me there is only one hiding place—the truth.”

“Happiness does not depend on possessions. Happiness is a matter of attitude. That is to say: a happy man does not see the dark side of reality. His sense of life suppresses the gnawing woodworm of the consciousness of death. One forgets that instead of walking, one is falling. It’s as if one were drugged.”

“It’s a direct offense to be asked after one’s health. It’s as if one apple asked another apple: ‘How are the worms which the insect bites gave you?’ Or as if one blade of grass asked another: ‘How are you withering? How goes your esteemed decomposition?’… Inquiries about one’s health increase one’s consciousness of dying, to which as a sick man, I am particularly exposed.”

On his job at the Insurance Institution: “That is not an occupation, it is a form of decomposition. Every really active purposeful life, which completely fulfills a man, has the force and splendor of a flame. But what do I do? I sit in the office. It is a foul-smelling factory of pain, in which there is no sense of happiness.”

“The buttresses of human existence are collapsing…. Our consciousness is shrinking. Without noticing it, we are losing consciousness, without losing life… We all live as if each of us were a dictator. And thereby we sink into beggary.”

“My imagination is always breaking out of the four walls of my office. But that doesn’t make my horizon any wider. On the contrary, it contracts. And I with it. I’m just a bit of waste matter and not even that. I don’t fall under the wheels, but only into the cogs of the machine, a mere nothing in the glutinous bureaucracy of the Accident Insurance Institution.”

“The most valuable thing [about travel] is that one should be forced, even for a short time, to cast of the chains of one’s old habits—to present an inventory of the much depleted portfolio of one’s life. Wherever one goes, one only travels towards one’s own misunderstood nature.”

Dickens was one of Kafka’s favorite authors, “for a time the model for what I vainly aimed at.” What did he like about Dickens? “His mastery of the material world. His balance between the external and the internal. His masterly and yet completely unaffected representation of the interaction between the world and the I. The perfectly natural proportions of his work.”

“Flaubert’s diaries are very important and very interesting.”

“Let evil and unpleasantness pass quietly over you. Don not try to avoid them. On the contrary, observe them carefully. Let active understanding take the place of reflex irritation, and you will grow out of your trouble. Men can achieve greatness only by surmounting their own littleness. Patience is the master key to every situation. One must have sympathy for everything, surrender to everything, but at the same time remain patient and forbearing.”

Columbine

Dave Cullen unravels the myths and falsehoods that swirled around the 1999 school tragedy that ushered in a new era of terror for children. For those of us who haven’t followed the twists and turns over the years, you probably have the idea that the media pushed at the time, a couple of loners who were angry at the jocks and wanted to shoot them all. Well, no. Eric Harris was a certifiable psychopath who had been planning an even bigger bombing than McVeigh’s OKC event, and he pulled Dylan along with him, the poor depressive kid who had planned on killing himself before the event actually came to pass. (Evil Eric and Depressive Dylan is how I’m keeping them straight in my head).

Beyond the inner workings of Eric’s mind, we see things that set the plan in motion in the months leading up to April 20: E & D steal things from a van and get caught, have to do some sort of juvy probation program, start stockpiling weapons, but still find time to go to prom and pick up chicks. Yes, they had bowling class but that’s not what they did the day of, sorry Michael Moore. Meh, overall, unless you’re completely nerding out about gun control and just want to feed your frenzy.

Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup

This story was more bonkers than I realized. Besides the willfully deceptive insistence that their fake product worked, there are seamy tales of hiding the bizarre relationship of Holmes and her much older, pudgy, Indian boyfriend from the board, the strained relationship of grandfather & grandson Schultz, the egg on the face of many pseudo-respectable figureheads on the board who were mesmerized by Holmes, a suicide prompted by impending grand jury testimony, and direct consequences to patients who had tests done by these fake pinprick sticks. Despite what seemed to be excellent reporting by Carreyrou, I can’t help feeling like there’s a bit of smacking of the lips, people enjoying this story a bit too much because of the meteoric rise and fall of this woman. Surely the Travises have participated in similar fraud? The investigative reporter must have mentioned Holmes’ preternatural deep voice over a dozen times. Bonus points for the fact that the fraud charges continue to pile up as everyone flips the pages of this book.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training

Another one from Deep Focus’s Novel Approach to Cinema wherein writers deconstruct, analyze, roll around in the playpen of a particularly kitschy film (see previous post where Jonathan Lethem takes on They Live). This covers the hastily put together sequel to the classic Bad News Bears, a 1977 movie where the team hits the road to play in Houston’s now exploded Astrodome.

I’d have to say that the author’s father was my favorite part of the book, reaching through the telephone to dump doom and gloom on his son when he was looking for a personal recollection of how they dealt with the 1977 NYC blackout but instead his dad talks about the limits of capitalism and how the global economy had reached the end of its post-war boom in 1977: “The mid- to late-1970s were the beginning of an unstoppable decline.”

Wilker picks apart all the continuity mistakes, the new actors cast into roles that rolled over from the previous movie, the flimsiness of the sequel itself. I think this is a less interesting book than Lethem’s mostly due to the movie comparison; They Live is a commentary on what we’re dealing with now whereas Breaking Training takes us back to a simpler time where racism and misogyny were normal and kids could play unsupervised even to escape in a custom van on the road.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

This was a good book to read, living up to the reputation that proceeded it from the lit nerds on Twitter, and a great choice to devour during Pride month. It’s a mix of writing and life advice, a memoir about surviving some terrible things as a kid and as a gay writer, some musings on gardening, 9/11, “The Election” (and what’s the point of continuing in this world?), friends dying of AIDS, apartments rented across NYC, dressing in drag in SF for his first Halloween, the terrible jobs picked up along the way (waitering, cater-waitering, tarot card reading), teaching writing, handling success, and more.

I think I first came to Chee’s writing from his essay on having Annie Dillard as a teacher which is included in this collection. He distills her wisdom into a dozen instructions:

  1. Put all deaths, accidents, and diseases at the beginning.
  2. Don’t ever use the word “soul.”
  3. Never quote dialogue that you can summarize.
  4. Avoid describing crowd scenes (especially party scenes).
  5. Vivid writing comes from precise verbs. Bad verb choices bring adverbs.
  6. All action on the page happens in the verbs. Verbs control when something is happening in the mind of the reader. Gerunds are lazy, you don’t have to make a decision and soon, everything is happening at the same time.
  7. Narrative writing sets down details in an order that evokes the writer’s experience for the reader. If you’re doing your job, the reader feels what you felt.
  8. Avoid emotional language. She isn’t angry, she throws his clothes out the window. Be specific.
  9. The first three pages of a draft are usually where you clear your throat. If the beginning is not found around page four, it’s often found at the end. Sometimes if you switch your first and last page, you get a better result.
  10. Take a draft and delete all but the best sentences. Fill in what’s missing, making the rest reach for those best sentences.
  11. Count the verbs on a page; circle them, tally the count for each page and average them. Now see if you can increase the number of verbs per page. In each case, have you used the right verb? When did this happen in relation to this? And is that how you’ve described it?
  12. Go to the place in the bookstore where your books will go, and put your finger there. Create the space for yourself. Visualize it.

Wagner’s Ring: Turning the Sky Round: Commentaries on The Ring of the Nibelung

I grabbed this book from the stacks without any guidance, hoping it could serve to steady me through a week of performances of The Ring. In it, Lee lays out the synopsis of each opera scene by scene (in Das Rheingold) or Act by Act (in the other three longer operas). Then he muses on philosophy, art, Schopenhauer, Liszt, Wagner, etc.

Wagner got the story from bit here and there, a little bit of medieveal myth, Norse/German saga, early pagan sources mixed in with his thinking awakened by Schopenhauer’s Will and Representation. Some parts originated with him, like Alberich’s stealing of the Rhine’s gold. “The idea for the Ring, then, did not spring full-grown and armed, lke Athene from the brain of Zeus, from Wagner’s endlessly seething, outsized head.”

Thomas Carlyle called the Ring “our northern Iliad” and cautioned European to see its opposition to materialism as a way to save industrialized nations from the insane power grabbing wealth hoarding path they were on.

Famously, Wagner wrote the texts in reverse order, starting with the 3rd and then writing the 2nd and 1st to fill in the gaps of the story. He took five years to just write the words, publishing them in 1853, then began to set them to music which ends up totaling about fifteen hours.

The fundamental insight of the Ring, Lee argues, is that everything that exists has evolved from one primal substance and that man had to separate himself from nature by evolving into consciousness.

Lee claims that half an hour into Act II of Die Walküre the music shifts to become palpably pessimistic. It’s at this point that Wagner began obsessively reading cheery old Schopenhauer, and it affects the rest of the music. The world is an illusion. As Wagner writes Liszt, “the world is evil, fundamentally evil!”

****

Myself, I wonder how feminists are able to sit through this non-stop worship of the patriarchy. Women being used as currency to pay for Valhalla’s building. Freia’s humiliation in the act of her body erased by the sacks of gold in exchange for her freedom (and by the way, why on earth does she seem to yearn for Fasolt, her captor who has just released her? Stockholm syndrome?). Why couldn’t Loge’s character be a woman? These are just some thoughts while listening to Das Rheingold last night after enduring the disparaging remarks of the huge elderly man squeezed into the seat next to me about how Wagner is pompous and how he prefers Italian and French operas. Great thing to hear right before settling in for fifteen hours of German opera! I’m excited about tonight’s Die Walküre but less enthused about Friday’s Siegfried after reading this book (Lee: “Long stretches of dialog fall in musical invention below the level of anything in the other parts of the cycle. More than two hours elapse before we hear a single female voice, and then we hear only an occasional chirp from the forest bird.”)

A Streetcar to Subduction and Other Plate Tectonic Trips by Public Transport in San Francisco

This booklet was put together for attendees of the 1979 American Geophysical Union’s annual meeting in San Francisco, a guide to seven trips in the area where you could hop on a streetcar (or BART) and check out some amazing rocks.  After a quick recap of plate tectonic theory, subduction explanation, and overview of rock types (serpentine, sandstone, shale, chert, basalt, gabbro), he dives into the various MUNI lines and trips around the city. Trip 1 takes you from Billy Goat Hill in the Mission (basalt, chert, and greywacke exposed) to Corona Heights to the New Mint outcrop (“This is probably the most beautiful and informative outcrop of serpentine in San Francisco”). Trip 2 is all about Fort Mason; Trip 3 dips into Baker Beach and Fort Point. Trip 4 was some crazy long bus ride around the city, to McLaren Park, Glen Canyon, Candlestick Hill, etc. The rest of the trips are outside the city in Marin, Angel Island, Hayward.

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

This book contains some of the most useful advice about writing that I’ve seen, much better than the random writing classes I’ve popped in and out of over the years. Especially useful is the section about Structure, originally in the New Yorker like the rest of McPhee’s stuff. One example is the cyclical nature of his Alaska tale, how he starts on day 4 of the adventure in present tense, goes to the end and loops the first 3 days as flashback in past, all to support the true nature of when they ran into bears along the way. Also in this chapter is information on the program McPhee uses— Kedit, a bare bones text editor that doesn’t do fancy things like pagination or spell check but will count the number of times you use words, zapping you for over-reliance on certain terms.

Robinson Jeffers: Poet of California

Yawn. This kind of hagiography masquerading as a biography does a disservice to its subject. I’m left feeling even more distant from the poet Jeffers than I was before picking up this book in preparation for an upcoming visit to Tor House. Was Jeffers  simply not a very interesting person, or did the biographer do little but spew what passes as the work of a second-grader? The sentence structure is so simplified, it feels like reading a Dick and Jane primer.

Apparently this crew loved to kill themselves with cyanide (it merits its own entry in the index!), as this flat sentence states: “Nora had swallowed cyanide, the sediment from which was found in her glass.” Another example of the terrible writing, w/r/t George Sterling, whose former wife “Carrie, who never stopped loving him, ended her life with poetic flair in August 1918. She carefully arranged her hair, put on a dressing gown and placed a recording of Chopin’s Funeral March on the gramophone. Then she took a lethal dose of cyanide, lay down on her bed and, listing to the somber strains of music, joined her own procession to the grave.” [“Never stopped loving him”? Don’t bother citing any evidence for this, just her suicide, right?] Sterling’s pal Jack London also possibly suicided, but nothing about London’s undying love for Sterling here. Sterling himself later opted out of life with his own packet of cyanide.

Most egregious, as is always the case with these terrible bios of men, is the treatment of women. When Jeffers’ wife Uma is initially introduced, she’s “strikingly beautiful and very intelligent,” reading Faust. While getting her master’s degree at USC, she was a married woman who fell in love with Jeffers, eventually ditching her marriage and studies to drive up the coast and launch his poetic career in Carmel. Her own pastimes became sewing and doing “household chores” (the biographer can’t be bothered to be more descriptive).  “Her children were at the center of her life.” Following the usual playbook, Jeffers has several affairs, one of which was arranged by Mabel Dodge Luhan, who “decided that Jeffers should have an affair. Only the passionate embrace of a younger woman could revivify his spirits and restore the flow of creative energy within… Jeffers either pursued the woman or surrendered to her charms.” Christ on a cracker.

What I’m taking away from this is that Robinson Jeffers lived a charmed life, discovering a wild and serene place where he built a home for his family and where he was able to howl at the moon while writing his poetry, listening to the waves crash nearby. My only consolation is that as time passed, Carmel got increased tourist traffic and grumpy Jeffers put up signs trying to drive people away but they liked picnicking on the rocks below his house, almost driving him away.

They Live

Jonathan Lethem’s analysis of John Carpenter’s 1988 film They Live is delicious and insightful. While not required to have seen the movie immediately before reading, it certainly helps as he calls out details that you missed upon a cursory viewing. Somewhat questionable is his insistence on the nod to gay porn, but he makes a fairly compelling argument (Nada taking his shirt off for no good reason, Frank’s deep-throated come hither invitation to join the homeless camp, their strange grappling in the alley) and backs it up by referencing the fact that Carpenter wrote several porn scripts in the 70s. Lethem guides us minute by minute through the romp, pulling out the obvious references (shot by shot comparison to Hitchcock, nods to John Wayne, etc.) and pieces of the plot you’re likely to overlook in the lead-up to the best sequence, the appearance of the ghouls & slogans when wearing the Hoffman glasses. I’m definitely interested in watching this again with fresh eyes.

The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft

George Gissing almost had my complete admiration with this book of curmudgeonly wisdom from a writer retiring to a peaceful life in the countryside until he slapped me with a throwaway sexist comment near the end: “Little girls should be taught cooking and baking more assiduously than they are taught to read.” Yowza, Gissing. Up until that point we were mind-melding, but that was the record scratch that brought me up short. Perhaps I’m too sensitive; Woolf didn’t seem to mind that bit when she wrote her essay about his talents.

Before the casual, devastating sexism popped in, I was wholly loving this story of a retired writer who lucked into an inheritance from a friend that allowed him to spend his remaining years peacefully reading and thinking in the countryside, wandering on walks, watching the seasons, learning the names of the wildflowers he encountered, hating the sound of the human voice to disrupt his reveries.

His advice for letting the day’s news wait until later in the day is refreshing for those of us addicted to refreshing the internet/Twitter for the latest gossip: “Generally I leave [the newspaper] till I come back tired from my walk; it amuses me then to see what the noisy world is doing, what new self-torments men have discovered, what new forms of vain toil, what new occasions of peril and of strife. I grudge to give the first freshness of the morning mind to things so sad and foolish.” Later, he adds: “Every day the world grows noisier; I, for one, will have no part in that increasing clamour, and, were it only by my silence, I confer a boon on all.”

He frequently reflects on his earlier toils, making his living by his pen, dodging poverty by the skin of his teeth. Mostly, he did it alone. “I never belonged to any cluster; I shrank from casual acquaintance, and, through the grim years, had but one friend with whom I held converse. It was never my instinct to look for help, to seek favour for advancement; whatever step I gained was gained by my own strength.”

On living alone in cheap lodgings: “I was easily satisfied; I wanted only a little walled space in which I could seclude myself, free from external annoyance… A door that locked, a fire in winter, a pipe of tobacco–these were things essential; and, granted these, I have been richly contented in the squalidest garret.”

My kinship with Gissing grew even more with his delight in reading. “To the end I shall be reading– and forgetting. Ah, that’s the worst of it! Had I at command all the knowledge I have at any time possessed, I might call myself a learned man. Nothing surely is so bad for the memory as long-enduring worry, agitation, fear. I cannot preserve more than a few fragments of what I read, yet read I shall, persistently, rejoicingly. Would I gather erudition for a future life?  Indeed, it no longer troubles me that I forget. I have the happiness of the passing moment, and what more can mortal ask?”

He also hated the sounds of the city. “Every morning when I awake, I thank heaven for silence… I remember the London days when sleep was broken by clash and clang, by roar and shriek, and when my first sense on returning to consciousness was hatred of the life about me. Noises of wood and metal, clattering of wheels, banging of implements, jangling of bells–all such things are bad enough, but worse still is the clamorous human voice. Nothing on earth is more irritating to me than a bellow or scream of idiot mirth, nothing more hateful than a shout or yell of brutal anger. Were it possible, I would never again hear the utterance of a human tongue, save from those few who are dear to me.”

Most houses were quarrelsome, but his was not. “What proportion of the letters delivered any morning would be found to be written in displeasure, in petulance, in wrath? The postbag shrieks insults or bursts with suppressed malice.”

Thinking vs. reading: “I read much less than I used to do; I think much more. Yet what is the use of thought which can no longer serve to direct life? Better, perhaps, to read and read incessantly, losing one’s futile self in the activity of other minds.”

More on reading: “How the mood for a book sometimes rushes upon one, either one knows not why, or in consequence, perhaps, of some most trifling suggestion… often it happens that the book which comes to mind could only be procured with trouble and delay; I breathe regretfully and put aside the thought. Ah! the books that one will never read again. They gave delight, perchance something more; they left a perfume in the memory; but life has passed them by for ever. I have but to muse, and one after another they rise before me. Books gentle and quieting; books noble and inspiring; books that well merit to be pored over, not once but many a time. Yet never again shall I hold them in my hand; the years fly by too quickly, and are too few. Perhaps when I lie waiting for the end, some of those lost books will come  into my wandering thoughts, and I shall remember them as friends to whom I owed a kindness– friends passed upon the way.  What regret in that last farewell!”

On coming to grips with old age: “As I walked today in the golden sunlight–this warm, still day on the far verge of autumn–there suddenly came to me a thought which checked my step, and for the moment half bewildered me. I said to myself: My life is over. Surely I ought to have been aware of that simple fact; certainly it has made part of my meditation, has often coloured my mood; but the thing had never definitely shaped itself, ready in words for the tongue. My life is over. I uttered the sentence once or twice, that my ear might test its truth.”

 

 

A Boy at the Hogarth Press

Richard Kennedy was 16 when he went to work at the Hogarth Press. This book is a pseudo-journal, recollections jotted down decades after the experience, describing the more mundane side of Leonard and Virginia and peppered with Kennedy’s own drawings.

Kennedy was a friend of the family it seems; his aunt’s parents had rented out Talland House to Julie and Leslie Stephen in St. Ives, the home VW used for To The Lighthouse. After Kennedy is kicked out of school for not being able to pass on to higher learning, he’s relaxing with his uncle in St. Ives when he learns of the opportunity to work for the press. Kennedy mentions that he would prefer to become an artist, and his uncle “replied that it was a positive duty on the part of any responsible person to discourage a young man or woman from taking up the arts: if they were any good they would do so anyway.”

This book is mostly valuable for giving us an honest portrayal of the Woolves from the perspective of a non-Bloombury-ite. Virginia is seen handing over tickets to lectures she can’t attend, sometimes chattering happily if she’s been to a party or “been walking round London, which she often does.”

Despite mispronouncing Proust, he elicits this opinion from her (who’s been called the “English Proust”): “she laughed and said she couldn’t do French cooking, but it was very delicious.”

Other details: VW handrolled her own shag (loose tobacco) cigarettes, talked about enjoying to learn foxtrot steps and kicking up her heels, is described as “beautifully dressed” throughout, said that the Hogarth Press was like keeping a grocer’s shop, and works in a studio in the basement (large windowless room) with boxes of books all around: “sitting in her little space by the gas fire.. she looks at us over the top of her steel-rimmed spectacles, her grey hair hanging over her forehead and a shag cigarette hanging from her lips. She wears a hatchet-blue overall and sits hunched in a wicker armchair with a pad on her knees and a small typewriter beside her.”


This shows Leonard’s temper in action when confronted with the petty cash book not adding up correctly.

Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing

I became curious about Bryan Garner after reading DFW’s long piece in Consider the Lobster about usage of the English language wherein he reveres Garner as a genius. Apparently the two met twice in real life but carried on an epistolary friendship along with scattered phone calls. The second real life meetings was the one captured in this book— Garner interviewed him in LA for an hour about writing and language. (The first meeting DFW brought his mom—a huge Garner fan—and his dad along, but Garner never even bothers to call DFW’s mother by name in his intro, all while mentioning James—his dad—as a philosophy professor. ARGH.) The conversation recorded here proves DFW’s charm and humor and smarts, conveying words of writerly wisdom while making my heart hurt from our loss of him. (Garner includes a weird bit about being disturbed by the way DFW signed books, crossing out his printed name with an editing mark, which apparently signaled a suicidal mind in the handwriting analysis books he read as a kid.)

I love that Wallace considered himself a journeyman of writing, someone skilled at a craft from having worked his way day-in and day-out, honing, struggling, showing up. He revealed that his process for writing the long form non-fiction essays took him about six months with obsessive notes and several drafts before he figured out what it was he wanted to say.

Random thoughts on writing:

  • “The reader cannot read your mind.”
  • Learn to pay attention in different ways, such as the exercise where you take a book you like, read a page 3 or 4 times, put it down, try to imitate it word for word to feel your own muscles trying to achieve the effects of the text. It will be in your failure to duplicate it that you learn what’s going on.
  • “The writing writing that I do is longhand… the first 2 or 3 drafts… I can type very much faster than I can write. And writing makes me slow down in a way that helps me pay attention.”
  • “One of the things that the college drummed into me is, ‘Welcome to the adult world. It doesn’t care about you. You want it to? Make it. Make it care.'”
  • How to write effectively is more a matter of spirit than of intellect or verbal facility. “The spirit means I never forget there’s someone on the end of the line, that I owe that person certain allegiances, that I’m sending that person all kinds of messages, only some of which have to do with the actual content of what it is I’m trying to say.”
  • “The average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity.”
  • Bryan asked him what writers he admired. “You mean writers I think are models of incredibly clear, beautiful, alive, urgent, crackling-with-voltage prose? William Gass, Don DeLillo, Cynthia Ozick, Louise Erdrich… here’s a weird one, though: one of my very favorites is Cormac McCarthy.”
  • “If you spend enough time reading or writing, you find a voice, but you also find certain tastes. You find certain writers who when they write, it makes your own brain voice like a tuning fork, and you just resonate with them. And when that happens, reading those writers—[it] becomes a source of unbelievable joy. It’s like eating candy for the soul.”
  • “And I sometimes have a hard time understanding how people who don’t have that in their lives make it through the day… Lucky people develop a relationship with a certain kind of art that becomes spiritual, almost religious, and doesn’t mean, you know, church stuff, but it means you’re just never the same.”
  • Necessary tools: OED, Roget thesaurus, and a usage dictionary like Garner’s Modern American Usage. “It’s like if all of English is a treasure and this is the chest that it’s in.”
  • “A good opener fails to repel… it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes.”
  • “The general rule of thing is you use the very smallest word that will do in a particular situation…[and] there’s this thing called ‘elegant variation.’ You have to be able… In order for your sentences not to make the reader’s eyes glaze over, you can’t simply use the same core set of words, particularly important nouns and verbs, over and over and over again. You have to have synonyms at your fingertips and alternative constructions at your fingertips. And usually, though not in the sense of memorizing vocab words like we were kids, but having a larger vocabulary is usually the best way to do that. The best. Having a good vocabulary ups the chances that we’re going to be able to know the right word, even if that’s the plainest word that will do and to achieve some kind of elegant variation, which I am kind of a fiend for.”

Consider the Lobster and Other Essays

What can you say about DFW that hasn’t already been moaned before? I love his essays, his incisive bite, his bulging vocabulary that precisely pinpoints the exact word necessary to bowl you over. Reading him in 2018 you get almost nauseated with sadness, the gaping hole where his skewering of the McDonald Tr*mp era would have fit nicely. There are glimpses of what his take would have been, like in the footnote in Big Red Son where he’s describing adult film star Scotty Schwartz’s recounting of praise he’s gotten (and gnashing of teeth over the fact that rival Corey Feldman’s career survived rehab):

“Russ comes over to me and goes, ‘Scotty, I been watching you. I like your style. I’m a good judge of people, and Scotty, you’re good people. I never heard one person say one bad thing about you.'” [Keep in mind that this is Scotty telling the story. Note how verbatim he gets Hampshire’s dialogue. Note the altered timbre and perfectly timed delivery. Note the way it never even occurs to Schwartz that a normal US citizen might be bored or repelled by Scotty’s lengthy recitation of someone else’s praise of him. Schwartz knows only that this interchange occurred and that it signified that a big fish approves of him and that it redounds to Scotty’s credit and that he wants it widely, widely known.]… What is the socially appropriate response to an anecdote like this—a contextless anecdote, apropos nothing, with its smugly unsubtle (and yet not unmoving, finally, in its naked insecurity) agenda of getting you to admire the teller?

Consider the Lobster is brimming with delights. A lengthy tour of the Vegas-hosted adult video awards where an industry journalist makes the prescient quote that “Nobody ever goes broke overestimating the rage and misogyny of the average American male.” DFW’s complete body slam of John Updike brought a huge smile to my face along with his coining of the Great Male Narcissist label for Mailer, Updike & Roth, and the perfect ending to the piece: “It never once occurs to him, though, that the reason he’s so unhappy is that he’s an asshole.” The epic essay on American English Usage, drowning in footnotes and sidebars and interpolations. A raw recounting of experiencing 9/11 with a group of ladies from his church in Bloomington, Indiana, and the aftermath of flags that popped up the next day, leading him on a futile search that ended in breaking down in a gas station, comforted by the Pakistani owner over cups of styrofoam tea. His incisive and bitter review of tennis phenom Tracy Austin’s ghostwritten memoir where he wonders why she bothered to have someone ghostwrite such terrible things like “I immediately knee what I had done, which was to win the US Open, and I was thrilled.” His 80 page article for Rolling Stone covering McCain’s 2000 run, hilarious and more entertaining than HS Thompson’s classic from the campaign trail. His questioning of the ethics of eating meat after attending the Maine Lobster Festival wherein these creatures are boiled alive (including a great footnote about tourists, see below). His quick glimpse at Frank’s epic bio of Dostoevsky which I’ve added Vol 4 to my to-read list since C&P has been sitting beside me for months in a please read me again attempt; also includes some tirades against translation which I enjoyed (more below). And finally, a really long piece (Host) that is nearly unreadable in the way it’s laid out on the page with boxes and arrows overlaying the main thrust of the article about a certain AM talk radio host; of interest in this piece is the early discussion of the fragmentation of news controlled by a handful of companies, creating “precisely the kind of relativism that cultural conservatives decry, a kind of epistemic free-for-all in which ‘the truth’ is wholly a matter of perspective and agenda.”

On tourists:

As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way. My personal experience has not been that traveling around the country is broadening or relaxing, or that radical changes in place and context have a salutary effect, but rather that intranational tourism is radically constricting, and humbling in the hardest way — hostile to my fantasy of being a real individual, of living somehow outside and above it all. To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience. It is to impose yourself on places that in all noneconomic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.

On translation. DFW is not a fan of Constance Garnett’s “excruciatingly Victorianish translations” but he also has problems with the overly popular P&V translations. “Russian, a non-Latinate language, is extraordinarily hard to translate into English, and when you add to this the archaism of a language 100-plus years old, Dostoevsky’s prose and dialogue can come off stilted and pleonastic and silly.”