Friday, 5 April 2013

So Much to Show You - Things I've Found on the Internet Since 23 February, 2013

There's a new affectation I've noticed that is very like the old one that people had of saying, 'Oh, I never watch television', their tone implying that watching television was an activity that was a little shameful. This new variant of that old trick is to say, 'You're on Twitter are you. Yes. I don't get Twitter'. This statement is made in such a way that the listener understands that not only does the speaker believe that they actually do "get" Twitter but that what they get about it is that it is a mind rotting waste of time.

Twitter definitely is a waste of time, in a way, but, far from being mind rotting, I would argue that it is quite mind broadening. The reason it is a waste of time is also the reason that it is mind broadening: it provides links to many, many things on the Internet that I would otherwise never see.

Many of the things Twitter links me to are fascinating, some merely funny, (and really, as Elberry shows us, [see point 2 here] 'merely' is the wrong word there, since wit, unlike seriousness, cannot be faked). Following these links does absorb time, but I don't really begrudge time spent reading - especially if I end up reading things that are beautiful or stimulating, thought-provoking or, indeed, introduce me to whole new ways of thinking, (even better, if they make me laugh).

And so to what I've found lately:

1. I've been reading Stephen Grosz's book and moderately enjoying it. However, as yet I haven't come across a piece in the book that is as fine as this one. He published it in Granta and I came across it thanks to a tweet from @drearyagent, whose tweets often lead to interesting links.

2. Another tweeter who regularly comes up with interesting things is @brainpicker, (even though the name makes me wince slightly). One of them was this letter, which is wonderful, even if it probably provided rather small comfort for poor old farflung Plorn. Another was some letters from EB White, including this one about editing:

"Dear Mr. –

It comes down to the meaning of ‘needless.’ Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal.

If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’*? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your letter.

 E. B. White" 

3. Someone retweeted something by @BryanAppleyard and that led me to this, which I like for the alternating photographs at the bottom. It seems to me that they give you sense of how exciting it must be to be a working actor, taking on different roles and being in different productions as a way of life, while at the same time highlighting how you can be very successful without achieving great fame.

4. I found the thesis of this, very intriguing. Can all this really be true, or is the whole thing an elaborate April Fool's Day joke:

"Over the past five years, we have seen a retyping of Jack Kerouac's On the Road in its entirety, a page a day, every day, on a blog for a year; an appropriation of the complete text of a day's copy of The New York Times published as a 900-page book; a list poem that is nothing more than reframing a listing of stores from a shopping-mall directory into a poetic form; an impoverished writer who has taken every credit-card application sent to him and bound them into an 800-page print-on-demand book so costly that he can't afford a copy; a poet who has parsed the text of an entire 19th-century book on grammar according to its own methods, even down to the book's index; a lawyer who re-presents the legal briefs of her day job as poetry in their entirety without changing a word; another writer who spends her days at the British Library copying down the first verse of Dante's Inferno from every English translation that the library possesses, one after another, page after page, until she exhausts the library's supply; a writing team that scoops status updates off social-networking sites and assigns them to the names of deceased writers ("Jonathan Swift has got tix to the Wranglers game tonight"), creating an epic, never-ending work of poetry that rewrites itself as frequently as Facebook pages are updated; and an entire movement of writing, called Flarf, that is based on grabbing the worst of Google search results: the more offensive, the more ridiculous, the more outrageous, the better."

Surely, the people engaged in these enterprises, (if, indeed, they exist - and something I remember reading earlier in the LRB suggests that they probably do), are really seeking a way to avoid the truly tough business of dragging words from their own brains and trying to make of them something amusing, diverting, intriguing, original even - but then I'm beginning to suspect that originality has become almost a bete noir in some circles these days. The only good thing about that, I suppose - or at least about the idea of striving to be unoriginal, (that is, striving to write like someone else), may be that sometimes, perversely, you will end up on a path that leads to writing as yourself.

5. It was also interesting to read that alongside this, which contains reflections on the way in which our reception of current events is almost entirely visualised and easily confused with entertainment and also some interesting observations on fiction and non-fiction and turning reality into literature.

6. Several of these made me laugh and laugh and laugh, as did several of these.

7. This charmed me. Of the collection, the only possession I coveted was the last one, which is absolutely exactly like the monkey that Emily Anderson had when I was small. She would bring it to school and climb up the climbing frame and she and her monkey would conduct an audience. She was a really horrible girl, but her monkey was so engaging that we were enthralled. His face could be squeezed and squodged to express such a range of feelings and he was witty and kind and all the things his mistress wasn't. We all coveted him, and Emily held us in her power with promises of his favours. I still can't decide whether through that monkey we saw glimpses of Emily's true nature or whether he was merely the mask she used to distract us from what an awful person she actually was. Probably the latter, since a decade or so later in Australia, quite by chance I met a girl who'd gone to Frances Holland School in London and be bailed up by a much older Emily and two of her henchmen (she'd obviously moved on from mere monkeys by this time). The girl I met was forced to watch - blurrily - as Emily deliberately took her glasses, placed them on the ground and crushed them with her gleaming black jackboots, (oh all right, her regulation Clark's lace-up school shoes [whatever happened to poetic licence?]).

8. This made me ashamed to be even half-British. Discovering that this man is providing his services for free at first made me feel a little better, until I learned that he is in the same chambers as Cherie Blair and then I began to wonder how much his gesture is party political - designed to show up the Conservative alliance government - and how much it is due to genuine compassion. I'm also doubtful about anything written by Nick Cohen as I've observed him take down perfectly sane comments on Hungary's current government that don't accord with his own.

9. As I love Auden, I of course loved this.

10. This story from the Sydney Morning Herald  suggested to me that Juanita Neilsen's disappearance will join the mystery of the Marie Celeste in my mind's file of the infinitely intriguing.

11. I was intrigued by this post on the great Evidence Anecdotal blog, particularly Coleridge's remarks about readers:

“Readers may be divided into four classes: 1) Sponges, who absorb all that they read and return it in nearly the same state, only a little dirtied. 2) Sand-glasses, who retain nothing and are content to get through a book for the sake of getting through the time. 3) Strain-bags, who retain merely the dregs of what they read. 4) Mogul diamonds, equally rare and valuable, who profit by what they read, and enable others to profit by it also.”

I was also interested by this comment:

"Certain times and places feel like antidotes to now, and represent better ways of going about the business of living",

in this post on the same blog, which seemed to explain to some extent my fondness for where I live in Budapest - and also for Central Europe more generally. I suspect what I may be responding to in those places is a sense of cultural continuity and cohesion, a shared understanding of the way things are done.

12. Although not a connoisseur of horror literature, I became fasicnated by this article about a writer I'd never before heard of called Ligotti. I found especially appealing, if that's the word, the ideas of the Italian writer and philosopher Carlo Michelstaedter, (of whom I'd also never before heard), as outlined in the article:

he  'offers the idea that human beings are the puppets or playthings of unknown forces that may or may not exist – a conspiracy without conspirators'

I think I am attracted to this conception of existence because it implies that somewhere there is a deeply mysterious God, (that is, it does if you ignore the 'may not exist' bit). That notion seems to match my own odd, (probably dreadfully warped), Christianity.

The final part of the article, which quotes from Ligotti's Noctuary is particularly wonderful, I think:

"Ligotti's 1994 book Noctuary contains a short piece, ‘The Puppet Masters’. It consists of a brief confession of an unnamed narrator who appears to have secret conversations with the puppets, dolls, and marionettes that lay about his room: ‘Who else would listen to them and express what they have been through? Who else could understand their fears, however petty they may seem at times?’ In an uncanny reversal, the narrator begins to suspect he too is a puppet; and the human-like puppets are also alarmingly unhuman. They are mute and indifferent, like puppet masters. The narrator continues, recapping one of Ligotti's recurring motifs, that of the puppet without strings, the conspiracy without conspirators:

'Do I ever speak to them of my own life? No; that is, not since a certain incident which occurred some time ago. To this day I don't know what came over me. Absent-mindedly I began confessing some trivial worry, I've completely forgotten what it was. And at that moment all their voices suddenly stopped, every one of them, leaving an insufferable vacuum of silence.'"


  1. I avoided this posting of yours for a long time, because I knew that I would get stuck on it. I knew I'd want to follow up all the leads because you never choose badly [which is to say, I must like similar stories to those you do].

    Now my worst fears have been realised. I have ten tabs open, limited time and sadly, even less discipline.

    I am an inveterate note-taker, and had thought to write a blog piece now and again in "Commonplace Book" style [again, something I discovered through a link from your blog a while back]. That idea's a bit like what you've done here, in fact.

    The world is full of ideas, and I'm so grateful to Twitter denizens for pointing me to them.

    Finally here, nothing reveals someone's ignorance of the Twitter universe so quickly as their reasons why they don't like it.

  2. SEE? It's now 2:50pm and I cackled all the way through your suggested link:

    and got nothing else done!

    1. Who needs to get anything done, provided one is laughing? A lot of those are absolutely hilarious and perfectly good answers to extremely boring and silly questions, I thought.