Saturday, December 1, 2007

The Board

I don't understand the New York Times's new(ish) blog, The Board.

I don't understand what makes the posts on the blog different from the editorials on the op/ed page, and thus why they have a blog at all. Their explanation is:

The Board is written by The New York Times editorial board, a group of journalists with wide-ranging areas of expertise, whose primary responsibility is to write The Times's editorials. The Board will include a variety of posts that give background to the day's editorials, cover other major topics of the day, or provide first-person take on an aspect of politics or society that we might not address in the editorial line-up.

And I guess they do that, kind of. But they're missing some important elements that we've already come to associate with blogs, and which I think have to be present for a blog to be successful.

First, voice. These blog postings read no differently from articles on the op/ed page. Which are neatly written, I might add, but again, for that I'd just go to the op/ed page itself. Blogs need to be written with a more personal tone, one that takes down the curtain of formality between writer and reader. That doesn't mean bad grammar (nooooo!); it does mean being playful, allowing oneself parentheticals, and being on the whole personable.

Linked into that is the second element, transparency. Blogs are supposed to be a way to see into worlds we wouldn't otherwise have access to--usually people's thoughts. So the content of an ed board blog shouldn't just be background on the week's news, but explanations as to editorial decisions and how those decisions were made. What do you get together and talk about, guys? And what kind of coffee do you drink when you do it? It's those details in addition to your high-value content that will make The Board worth reading.

Lastly, timing. Blogs react to news, and they do it fast. I expected the Board's blog to provide mini editorial-type commentary to news stories breaking throughout the day. Their own authoritative take, with their wonderful perspective and resources as NYT ed board members, of the same things that we're all hashing out on our blogs. This week that's the Kindle, Facebook's most recent challenge to our ideas of privacy and the possibilities of the Web, the Golden Compass protests, and similar widespread issues. If they're not careful, someone's going to take their authority away just because they are in fact missing from that space.

Because I'm sure that one of the reasons that the NYT launched a blog for their editorial page was to confirm its continuing authority. Lots of companies are doing this now, and media/publishing companies feel the threat of obsolescence most of all, as thought dissemination is now threatening to find a new home rather than in the printed pages of newspapers and books. But you can't just throw a blog up: you need to react to the new demands that these new technologies place on content. The NYT has a chance to be at the forefront of that change, but they're just not doing it yet.

Never a Dull Moment

Lots of things to track these days.

First, the Facebook Beacon outcry, media coverage, response, and response to response. Best overall coverage on the last few days on the Forrester folks' Groundswell blog. Also a Times article. The Facebook protest group is wonderful in and of itself--users trust Facebook enough to use it to try to get it to change itself!--though the comments on it make me shudder. It's just the grammar Nazi coming out in me, and the stop-making-obvious-and-stupid-arguments Nazi. My basic take on all this is that Facebook made a serious mistake (more serious than News Feed), has listened to its constituents, and is taking measured steps to do what it's being asked.

It's important to note that Facebook is not getting rid of Beacon, nor allowing you to opt out entirely, which is fine. It is now just doing what it stakes its reputation on: letting you decide for yourself what of your actions other people see. All these crazy people out there who are saying "oh, THIS is where these crazy teenagers draw the line? they post pictures of themselves drinking but now want Facebook not to post about their Overstock purchases?" are missing the point entirely. You should be able to post whatever you want about yourself--but the touchy Facebook moments are always when it's someone else (or something else, like a program) that does the posting for you.

Second on my radar is our own office's attempt to Groundswellize and begin thinking about how to use social technologies. It's super exciting and I love the Press because everyone there is so into these ideas, and though many of us are new to the various sites, I think we're all talking about the big picture in the right ways. Which is to say, we're helping to construct the big picture. And people are excited to share their thoughts with the world and to get the world involved, which is what it's all about.

Third, I'm home for a long weekend to celebrate my mom's birthday. Happy birthday, mom! We're going to get a Christmas tree and go for brunch and do yummy things like that.

Fourth, The Golden Compass. I have a sense this is about to become a volatile issue in my family, in which we have a few branches with little kids, and some of the branches are born-again Christian and some of the branches are fiery super-liberal. And all the branches come together at Christmastime.

I read the trilogy while writing my senior thesis on C.S. Lewis's fiction. Pullman is a virulent anti-Lewis guy; he has said that he basically wrote his trilogy to give the "liberal intelligentsia" something to read to their kids other than that evil religious goo of Lewis's. It has been remarked that he has managed to go 360 degrees from Lewis and isn't that much different in the end (other than the whole God-killing thing, I suppose).

It's the overall aesthetic idea of the plot which I find most interesting and appealing. Overturning Milton (and by his title Pullman makes it rather clear that he's more interested in overturning Milton than overturning the Bible) has been a central project of English literature for the past few centuries, if you buy Harold Bloom's arguments about poets' anxiety of influence. Pullman does it with no holds barred--and I say kudos to him. He belongs up there with Beardsley and Wilde for challenging social mores for the sake of art.

Unfortunately, I don't think his art is all that good (Wilde's and Beardsley's was). The trilogy doesn't live up to the promise of the Milton-overturning. Creatures on wheels may have worked for Baum in Ozma of Oz, but here they're a forced attempt to depict evolution by natural selection through fiction. Overthrowing Milton is a brilliant idea, except when it, well, fails.

One of the reasons it fails is that it's so clear throughout the novels that Pullman has a personal vendetta against religion and God; and his anger gets in the way of his argument. I think he's angry at God for a lot of the same reasons as Thomas Hardy, part of the original group who came up with the term "agnostic." Hardy complained that if a Supreme Being did exist He was "either limited in power, unknowing, or cruel--which is obvious enough, and has been for centuries." Pullman feels abandoned and mistreated by God, even if--especially if--He doesn't exist. And furthermore Pullman's angry at organized religion for the same reasons as Christopher Hitchens--it arguably causes more strife and death in the world than anything else. He lets this anger run wild in the books and it makes them frustrating to read in places.

The books aren't entirely a hate-fest, though. It's interesting to see where the love-patterns do come out--like between the children and their daemons. There's real emotion there, which is what kept me reading through the something-hundred-odd pages of the trilogy. What do we have to learn from the alternate schema of love-in-the-world that Pullman is proposing? If we are free from God's binding garden, as Pullman would have it, on what basis are we going to interact? (The Enlightenment would joyfully raise Reason to that pedestal.) I want to reread the books if just to figure out Pullman's answers to these questions.

But a more practical question is the children. Much as I'm all for reading and discussing these books, even I feel like I might balk at letting the kiddies see the movies. Am I being suddenly over-conservative? My argument is that it would completely confuse kids to be absorbed in a culture that still presents God as a good being (even an atheist, liberal local culture does this passively at this point) and then to see a movie trilogy that makes killing God its premise? Am I not giving kids enough credit? Would they ask questions? Or would they just be scared? Would they sense that Pullman is mean-spirited? Or would they get his aesthetic project? Would they become atheists but still understand the values of the Narnia movies?

And the real questions: why does it tweak me out so much to see anti-Golden-Compass protests if I too fear the books' implications? And since when do I fear the books' implications? But wait, since when don't I fear the books' implications?

Maybe the hardest thing about conversations about the Golden Compass it that the books make us really think about what we believe, and come to terms with it in a modern, everyday context. And because like fundamental religions the trilogy doesn't create any kind of space for someone to believe both in a religion and in modern liberal values, it becomes just another intolerant voice creating strife.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Old Printed Things

Went to the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair this afternoon. A glorious collection of old books, old prints, old maps, first editions of books from Dickens to Harry Potter, really old editions of Ovid, and not-that-old art book editions of Edward Lear.

Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe had a great showing. Everywhere you turned were books by or about them. Is this a fad, or are there just more books by them out there? Pop or cult fiction meets Legitimate Literature? Catch-22 was also fairly ubiquitous. Other notables were a first edition of the single-volume Dombey and Son, and a first edition of Charlotte's Web which White had inscribed to Nabokov.

And then there were maps. So many, many maps.

When poking through dusty old print shops, I usually look for maps of England or Maine or Boston or other places I know. There's something so wonderful about looking at an old map or reading an old description of a place you know well: some things will be very much the same, and others will be delightfully different. But so many of the maps today were of Boston and New England that I became numbed to them and began watching for something quite different: a differentiation of aesthetic pattern.

Maps of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries are usually as crammed full of information as possible. Hill-signs indicate mountains, mounds, and inclines; rivers, as alleyways of knowledge, are drawn in particular detail. Toponyms proliferate, filling blank areas with grey when viewed from a distance, and with a complex web of names when viewed close up. Where no information is available, cartographers fill empty spaces with sea dragons and tall ships, fierce, befeathered native peoples and cute little bunny rabbits. The result is a kind of fractal aesthetic: the image can be viewed at varying "zoom levels." At the lowest level--"zoomed out"--there is a uniform buzz or fuzziness to the image. You can't really appreciate more than a few of these at one sitting unless you're really looking for something specific, which I wasn't.

So instead, the maps that caught my eye today were entirely different from these. One is an early chart of the Carolina coast and a few nearby islands. Most of it is ocean and unexplored territory. There are maybe three toponyms on the whole map. Instead rhumb-lines (lines indicating the winds and compass directions) dominate the image, giving a sense of a perfectly clean geometry. The cartographer has made no attempt to embellish. There are just straight, intersecting lines, and one ragged coastline running across a third of the page. Clean and simple, if ripped haphazardly in two.

Another map was of the Philippines. It too eschewed with most toponyms. Each cluster of islands had its own color shading, and that was the only decoration.

These maps are best viewed from a distance; they just don't have zoomability. But today their simpler, larger spatial gestures offered me an alternative to squinting through familiar and unfamiliar placenames, bringing to mind Mondrian and a squigglier kind of Barnett Newman. These maps seemed postmodern in the face of the rest of the modern hubbub, and, in the face of a zooish conference hall, bespoke a different kind of calm, fresh, basic form and function.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Goals and Motivations

The other day a friend and I were bemoaning our regular office smorgasbord and the effort it requires to go to the gym every day. She said, hesitantly, that at the moment she was focused in on one goal that sounded--she knew--kind of silly: to fit into a particular shirt by New Year's. It was silly, she reiterated, but it did keep her going to the gym day in and day out.

I don't think this sounds silly at all. I do it too: I motivate myself to exercise by setting concrete, short-term goals, like being able to wear a favorite skirt without feeling all squished in the middle.

The reason we think this might sound silly is that we feel that we really should be motivated to go the gym because of some grand, bigger reason, like staving off heart disease so we can live to see our grandkids. But thinking of that while in my twentieth minute on the elliptical just doesn't keep my pace up. Trying to figure out what to wear later that day will. This says less about the relative importance of these goals (grandkids vs. clothes), I think, than about the immediacy of the question.

So are things like Health and Grandkids useless as motivation? I don't think so. But because they're more abstract, more intangible, more far off, they motivate us in a different way. We encourage ourselves to make those "silly" mini-goals precisely because we know that they're a way of heading us in the direction of the major goal in smaller, more digestable chunks. If it weren't for this major motivation behind it all, we'd call our mini-goals "excuses" and not "goals."

When we were talking this over at lunch today, Tim asked me whether I thought gym-related mini-goaling differed by gender. Did men do the same thing? Yes, we concluded, and their mini-goals might be strinkingly similar: fitting into clothes, impressing the opposite sex at a particular event, and so forth. They might speak about them differently, however, making more public their goal to impress a girl with their biceps than their worry about how their waistband was getting tighter.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


In the days after September 11, 2001, we went through it. The checking up on friends--have you heard from...? oh he's ok...? but have you heard from...? One name kept coming up, after everyone else had been heard from, accounted for, checked off. We never heard from Maurita Tam. Concert choir was devastated. We had been on tour with her the year before, with her quick smile and her kind words and unexpected laugh. On Thursday it rained, and there was a memorial service. We sang one of the tour songs for Maurita, and for everyone else who died on that shaken day, and then we retired the song from our repertoire. It has been running through my head since events at Virginia Tech began to unfold yesterday, when students were asking those same questions, and there were those eerily familiar scenes of university students boldly showing emotion and coming together to share a pain so utterly unassociated with bright college days. The song has been running through my head, all day. It helps, somehow.

"Enosh kekhatsir yamav..."
(As for man, his days are like grass...)
(Psalm 103:15-18)

Friday, April 6, 2007

Happy Self-Denial-Ritual Season!

It's an odd year.

As always, Passover and Easter are close on each others' heels, and conversations about keeping Kosher and fasting on Good Friday have hit the blogosphere right on schedule. Yet it seems this year nobody's actually doing any observing. It's a killer week in the semester--midterms to take, midterms to grade, degree qualifying exams, theses all but due. I have a friend who's intensely dieting and can't afford to cut anything more out of her daily caloric intake. Myself, I'm coming down with something and, while I'm abstaining from the chicken soup, I'm still going to stuff myself with everything else my body needs to fight off the ick.

My first reaction to all this would be to observe that fasting and keeping Kosher are ways of making us very aware of what we eat and grateful for it, and making us slow down and reflect on, to put it the clichéd way, the important things in life, putting everything else into perspective. What are we missing by saying that our diet, our schoolwork, our common colds, are excuses not to do these things? Aren't they those less-important-things-in-life that a day of fasting is supposed to remind us are less important to begin with? The ritual of fasting, like any other ritual (see sociologists Victor Turner and Mary Douglas), is supposed to change the state of our being in some way. We're refusing to be changed this year.

But on the other hand, the number of reflective conversations I've had with (myself and) other non-observers might indicate the contrary. We're all clearly thinking about fasting, food, tradition, reflection, and what's important in our lives. The awareness is still there, precisely because of the fact that we're making the decision to still eat leavened bread or food on Friday. Maybe in some way not participating in a ritual that we know exists is a ritual in itself.

Sunday, March 11, 2007


A warm early-southern-spring day. You can smell the green.

It just might be a porch-sitting (and porch-thesis-writing) kind of day.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Woah, meta.

I am using the Longman handbook, which I am reviewing (as part of the job hunt), to look up the MLA citation style of a review published by Longman (as part of my thesis).

Friday, March 9, 2007

Why Literature?

So after a conversation with my sister and brother-in-law last weekend, I've been thinking about one of those questions that literature students always get and never, I think, know exactly how to answer. Basically it asks why literature is so elliptical, and therefore elitist.

Let me qualify. My sister and brother-in-law are both well-educated, especially in their fields of IT communications and geology, respectively. They're smart, well off, and entirely satisfied with where their education has gotten them in life.

My brother-in-law likes to maintain that, other than being kind of nice, literature is pretty useless, and literature professors are doing everything they can to dupe universities into thinking the opposite. My sister just says she doesn't "get it."

We were arguing about religion the other night, which we do frequently, and which really gets all of us thinking on all cylinders. I brought up Tess of the D'Urbervilles, one of my favorite novels, to talk about agnosticism and the feeling of being abandoned by an imperceivable God who, in Hardy's words, "must be either limited in power, unknowing, or cruel." The allusion seemed to catch my brother-in-law's attention (I think he thinks that all of nineteenth-century literature assumes the omnipotence, omniscience, and goodness of God without question), and as he was intrigued by the psychology of agnosticism, we kept talking about it.

Within a few minutes, though, the conversation turned to literature. Why did Hardy need to write the novel, my brother-in-law asked, if that's what he was saying in it? Why didn't he just come out and say it? Putting it in novel form seemed like just another conspiracy to keep the wrong people from "getting it" and thus maintaining that they had something to teach.

One answer, I suppose, is that this is my interpretation of the novel; whether or not it's what Hardy meant to write is another story. We can get into these is-the-author-dead conversations, but it doesn't help with my brother-in-law's primary, rather Marxist, question: why is what's said through literature impossible to convey directly in a manner that a "layperson"--that is, one without a strong education in literature, or a strong background in reading it--would understand? These are people for whom irony has little resonance; of "he was not the least of men" and "he was the greatest man" they would see the latter as more laudatory (the author of Beowulf would argue with that, I fear); and you can't tell them that they are supposed to feel the opposite because that's just not how literature actually works. If I can say "being an agnostic makes you mad at God," and a list of other statements about what the novel is "saying," why bother writing the novel and then having to teach people how to make those interpretations?

I know all of the arguments for how literature evokes emotion rather than telling you about it (though again, it just doesn't seem to evoke those emptions in precisely those people who are questioning its value); I know that we all have different interpretations, new ones every day; I know that when kids analyze literature they learn critical thinking skills. But in my brother-in-law's ideal, practical world, all those things could be done away with (though it would be rather like 1984, perhaps). Maybe all we're left with at the end of the day is literature's beauty: that's the reason that it has triumphed over Newspeak as a better way of communicating. Maybe they believe there's a version of 1984 that actually works and doesn't degrade the subject? But Orwell denies that possibility. But I can't use that argument: they don't want literature to justify its own existence; they need outside proof.

My great worry here is that as education becomes more specialized, especially at the big state schools, a whole segment of the population will be skeptical of literature to the point of thinking about conspiracies and such. Which isn't to say that there haven't been large portions of the population who were not exposed to a literary education before this time. Especially after the institution of public education in the nineteenth century, there was a growing divide between those educated persons who were given a liberal, classical education (upper classes), and those given a much more practical education in the sciences (middle classes). And part of the reason that public education was even begun was that upper-class voters feared that the newly enfranchised middle classes would "vote wrong." But the fear of those upper-crusters then looks like it might be coming to pass now: practical education is overtaking an education in the humanities that I believe still has immense value. I don't like that such thinking places me with the upper-crusters, but there it is.

This is turning into a class debate, but I want to keep literature itself in the picture: how can literature and the study of literature continue to justify its existence if the growing majority of people cannot understand it, or choose not to bother? What makes literature so great? Why literature?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Where did the pirate get his golden statue?

At the Oscarrrrs!

This is my favorite photo from this year's Academy Awards:

The New York Times, February 26, 2007

It has a touch of Cinderella to it, the way everyone is standing just a bit apart from Penélope, as if the force of her beauty is keeping them at arm's length. The divide between the world of the crowd and the world of Penélope and the photographers is is more than one of space: it's one of light, color, time (the hustle and bustle of the stampete versus her statuesque image), and chronology (looks like she belongs in the glory days of Hollywood). The framing of the picture, with the enormous Oscar looking massively and impassively away from the scene, seems ominous to me--not regal, as I think it was meant to.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Book Meme

huzzah, books!

Look at the list of books below. Bold the ones you’ve read, italicize the ones you want to read, cross out the ones you won’t touch with a 10 foot pole, put a cross (+) in front of the ones on your book shelf (I'm taking multiple crosses to mean multiple editions), and asterisk (*) the ones you’ve never heard of.

(I’m going to add “indifference” as a category by not marking some at all).

+1. The Da Vinci Code (Dan Brown)
+++2. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
3. To Kill A Mockingbird (Harper Lee)
4. Gone With The Wind (Margaret Mitchell)
++5. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King (Tolkien)
++6. The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (Tolkien)
++7. The Lord of the Rings: Two Towers (Tolkien)
+++8. Anne of Green Gables (L.M. Montgomery)
9. Outlander (Diana Gabaldon) *
10. A Fine Balance (Rohinton Mistry) *
+11. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
12. Angels and Demons (Dan Brown)
13. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rowling)
+14. A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
15. Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden)
++16. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Rowling)
17. Fall on Your Knees (Ann-Marie MacDonald)*
18. The Stand (Stephen King)*
+19. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Rowling)
+20. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte)
+21. The Hobbit (Tolkien)
+22. The Catcher in the Rye (J.D. Salinger)
23. Little Women (Louisa May Alcott)
24. The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)*
+25. Life of Pi (Yann Martel)
26. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
27. Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte)
+28. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (C. S. Lewis)
29. East of Eden (John Steinbeck)
30. Tuesdays with Morrie (Mitch Albom)
31. Dune (Frank Herbert)
32. The Notebook (Nicholas Sparks)
33. Atlas Shrugged (Ayn Rand)
+34. 1984 (Orwell)
+35. The Mists of Avalon (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
+36. The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett)
37. The Power of One (Bryce Courtenay)*
38. I Know This Much is True (Wally Lamb)
+39. The Red Tent (Anita Diamant)
40. The Alchemist (Paulo Coelho)*
41. The Clan of the Cave Bear (Jean M. Auel)
42. The Kite Runner (Khaled Hosseini)
43. Confessions of a Shopaholic (Sophie Kinsella)
44. The Five People You Meet In Heaven (Mitch Albom)
+++45. Bible
+46. Anna Karenina (Tolstoy)
47. The Count of Monte Cristo (Alexandre Dumas)
48. Angela’s Ashes (Frank McCourt)
+49. The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)
+50. She’s Come Undone (Wally Lamb)
51. The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver)
+52. A Tale of Two Cities (Dickens)
+53. Ender’s Game (Orson Scott Card)
++54. Great Expectations (Dickens)
55. The Great Gatsby (Fitzgerald)
56. The Stone Angel (Margaret Laurence)*
+57. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rowling)
58. The Thorn Birds (Colleen McCullough)*
59. The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood)*
60. The Time Traveller’s Wife (Audrey Niffenegger)
+61. Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
62. The Fountainhead (Ayn Rand)*
63. War and Peace (Tolstoy)
64. Interview With The Vampire (Anne Rice)
65. Fifth Business (Robertson Davies)*
+66. One Hundred Years Of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
67. The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants (Ann Brashares)
+68. Catch-22 (Joseph Heller)
69. Les Miserables (Hugo)
+++70. The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
71. Bridget Jones’ Diary (Fielding)
72. Love in the Time of Cholera (Marquez) +
+73. Shogun (James Clavell)
74. The English Patient (Michael Ondaatje)
+75. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett)
76. The Summer Tree (Guy Gavriel Kay)*
77. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (Betty Smith)
78. The World According To Garp (John Irving)
79. The Diviners (Margaret Laurence)*
+80. Charlotte’s Web (E.B. White)
81. Not Wanted On The Voyage (Timothy Findley)*
82. Of Mice And Men (Steinbeck)
83. Rebecca (Daphne DuMaurier)*
84. Wizard’s First Rule (Terry Goodkind)*
++85. Emma (Jane Austen)
86. Watership Down (Richard Adams)*
+87. Brave New World (Aldous Huxley)
88. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)*
89. Blindness (Jose Saramago)*
90. Kane and Abel (Jeffrey Archer)*
91. In The Skin Of A Lion (Ondaatje)*
+92. Lord of the Flies (Golding)
93. The Good Earth (Pearl S. Buck)*
+94. The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd)
95. The Bourne Identity (Robert Ludlum)
96. The Outsiders (S.E. Hinton)*
97. White Oleander (Janet Fitch)*
98. A Woman of Substance (Barbara Taylor Bradford) *
99. The Celestine Prophecy (James Redfield)*
100. Ulysses (James Joyce)

Monday, January 29, 2007


Kipling has some terrific metaphors. I think Orwell would like this one in particular:

"Now a break in a railway system produces much the same effect as a break in a word or a lizard. The two sundered sections grow exceedingly lively."


I've been listening to a lot of Coldplay lately. It's chill, good working music; it reflects my kind of quiet sadness at having Tim far away. Their sound has that same open windsweptness as the music of Sigur Rós and Martin Lauridsen (one of my favorite choral composers). Winter as both quiet and exciting, subdued and cozy and frightening, tormented and comfortable.

Maybe this is why I'm writing my thesis on climate.

Friday, January 26, 2007


Well, I'm back in Charlottesville now, and have apparently, since Christmas, been going through an output dry spell. Does this ever happen to anyone else? It's not just that I'm not producing proper work (I actually have been adding pages, however dreary, to my thesis), but that I haven't got much to say other than that. I just feel that I should put something up here to voice my continuing existence.

Instead of writing, I have been soaking in things: while I was recuperating from having the wisdom taken out of me (all four wisdom teeth! and I learned that they're called such in many Indo-European languages), I read a few Rider Haggard novels and a Marryat novel: so lots of imperial adventure there. My mom got me a BBC Dickens collection for Christmas, so we watched a lot of those. I moved on to Christmas gifts soon and have been working through Pinker's "The Language Instinct," a popular scientific study of language and cognition (much in the style of "Guns, Germs, and Steel"). I'm also auditing a course on cartography this semester, and since is slow, the first few books on my syllabus have not arrived, so I'm immersing myself in the later books, which have arrived, and which are fabulous. Who knew the theories of cartography were exactly the same as those of literature, but with visual theory added in (more like visual poetry, I suppose)? It's dense but wonderful.

Oh, and over break Tim and I went to the Folger and drooled on their exhibit of early modern writing life after the advent of printing. One of my favorite displays was of the cryptographic methods used at the time; one was called a "casement letter." Both parties, writer and recipient, would have a physical guide to writing, called a casement, which was essentially a piece of thick, stiff paper with little windows cut out. This would be placed over a sheet of paper and the letter would be composed in the windows. Then the casement would be removed and the rest of the sheet of paper would be filled in with random sentences, so it would be impossible, in effect, to figure out the content of the true letter. The recipient would place their copy of the casement over the letter when they received it, and voila, the original letter would appear. With the casement over the page, though, the letters are suggestive of Jess's work in Organic Funiture Cellar. There's a sense of lightness to the page, and also a sense of being let in to view scattered bits of something. I guess what I'm saying is that in both cases the sense of confusion is strongly accompanied by the joy of being able to see even pieces of something, of being let in just for a little bit, of a child standing on tiptoe at a high window to glance at the sky.

Anyway, the kitchen timer calls: must take pasta out. More later?