At The Margin
Vol. 3, Issue 3 (Whole Issue #29)
April 24, 2002
Matters, many bizarre and obscure, from the world of books.
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1. Books as Objects of Hate
2. Can Information Go Extinct?
3. The Author as a Character
5. E-Mail to the Editor
6. Do You Know Me?
7. Blue Underlined Words
1. Books as Objects of Hate
A new book from University of Minnesota Press, Harmful to Minors: The Perils of Protecting Children from Sex by Judith Levine, has (predictably, perhaps) started a controversy. The book argues that depriving teenagers of information about sex puts them at risk of unsafe sexual practices. It also suggests that "abstinence-only" sex education is more likely to encourage teen pregnancy than sex-positive education. For an interview with the author, see http://www.salon.com/mwt/feature/2002/04/19/levine_talks/index.html.
Levine has become the newest target of the right-wing hydrophobes who run talk radio. None of them have read her book (neither have I, by the way), but that doesn't prevent them from excoriating it as a defense of pedophilia. There have been calls for government action against the book, and the Minnesota legislature has asked the publisher to explain the process by which it reviews books for publication.
It is unlikely (we hope!) that any government action will be taken against Levine for what appears to be a thoroughly researched and intelligently argued book. (The University of Minnesota Press subjected it to review by five scholars instead of the usual two.) But if the hydrophobes had their way, Levine would be a casualty of the culture wars. What they want is a kind of literary lynching.
Coincidentally, a new book, Literary Lynching by Dorothy Bryant, is being serially published on the web by Pat Holt, the former book critic of the San Francisco Chronicle who runs the web site Holt Uncensored (http://www.holtuncensored.com/index.html). According to author Dorothy Bryant, a literary lynching occurs when a book touches off, not a program of government suppression, but a mob attack based on some belief about the book's contents that might be wholly untrue and irrational. It develops into a "widespread, spontaneous effort to obliterate [the book] and sometimes even the author."
The modern literary lynching, if not commonplace, is at least predictable in a world where "discussion" is fostered by professional provocateurs catering to avowedly anti-intellectual audiences. But the phenomenon has been going on at least since the nineteenth century. Bryant's book covers Ivan Turgenev (Fathers and Sons), Thomas Hardy (Jude the Obscure), Kate Chopin (The Awakening), George Orwell (Homage to Catalonia), Hannah Arendt (Eichmann in Jerusalem), William Styron (The Confessions of Nat Turner), and her own sixth novel, A Day in San Francisco. I find it interesting that so many of these are novels.
None of these look like hateful books, and yet they each inspired smear campaigns with signficant overtones of hate. Why does this happen? "Sometimes the author has written a truth that many people know but are unwilling to see revealed," writes Bryant in her introduction. "But sometimes the book exposes nothing -- it simply happens to come out at a moment in history when widespread fear and anger are seeking release, and the book becomes a target -- a scapegoat in the most primitive sense of the word."
At this writing, Holt Uncensored has published the introduction and the first two chapters of Literary Lynching. It's worth a look: http://www.holtuncensored.com/literary_lynching/index.html#table.
2. Can Information Go Extinct?
Is any of your information written on 5.25-inch floppy disks? Good luck finding a device to read it. Most machines today, if they read floppy disks at all, can only use the 3.5-inch ones. And most of us don't even use those any more (my desktop system has no floppy drive and the one 3.5-inch drive I have -- in a laptop -- hasn't been used in the past year). Every time a new storage medium appears on the market, a world of information becomes vulnerable to loss. This information depends for its survival on human beings to transfer it before the medium on which it resides becomes obsolete. Much of it, of course, is eminently forgettable, but that's the kind of judgment you or I might make. Librarians, thank goodness, attach value to all information.
This isn't just a question of the hardware. It is well known that not all web browsers display all web pages in the same way. There is a consortium that's in charge of the standards for HTML (the "language" in which web pages are written), but software publishers will ignore the standards if they think doing so will give them a competitive edge. If Microsoft, for example, can introduce a nonstandard HTML "tag" that secures the competitive position of Windows, do you think it would hesitate to make the decision? So web page display is changing as well, and it is conceivable that a page readable by today's software might not be readable in 50 years -- or even 20.
"Data grows, lives, and dies, as do delivery systems. As never before, the task of keeping data alive requires frequent adaptations to and perpetual evolution of the archival system." These lines are from a paper, "The Archive as an Ecosystem," by Julia Martin and David Coleman, published by The Journal of Electronic Publishing (http://www.press.umich.edu/jep/07-03/martin.html).
Don't think the problem of "data migration" has nothing to do with books. Note that a few years back, some libraries destroyed book bindings to make it easier to transfer their contents to microfilm. There are a lot of historical sources being archived on the web now. You can find the entire contents of the Congressional Record and its nineteenth-century counterpart, The Congressional Globe, on the web. There are also complete runs of magazines like The Atlantic Monthly and Debow's Review. Web archiving solves a major storage problem (shelf space), but it also creates a new one.
Conservation of information (as both books and computer files) is conceptually similar to conservation of species in our environment. The world of information is based on dynamic relationships and interdependence among libraries, publishers, archivists, researchers, merchants, collectors, and readers in a way that seems startlingly like the relationships among interdependent species in ecosystems. Martin and Coleman argue that the long-term survival of information may depend on viewing it in the same way, rather than continuing to think it is possible to permanently store information on the "right" system.
It's a fascinating idea and an interesting article.
3. The Author as a Character
Here's something interesting I've discovered in recent reading. The Razor's Edge (1944) by W. Somerset Maugham, Chimera (1972) by John Barth, and Galatea 2.2 (1995) by Richard Powers are all stories in which their authors, relatively undisguised, appear as characters.
These novels are about as disparate as any three "literary" novels could be. The first describes the search of its protagonist, Larry Darrell, for spiritual fulfillment after the wrenching experience of the First World War. The second combines the legends of Scheherazade (the storyteller), Perseus (the slayer of Medusa), and Bellerophon (tamer of the winged horse, Pegasus) in a thematically unified tripartite story. And the third is the story of a writer who trains a self-adaptive software application to pass a graduate comprehensive examination in English literature.
Most of us are familiar with books in which the narrator is a character (Moby Dick, Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby, just to name a few). But the three books in question go beyond that to place, in each case, an identifiable version of the author in the story.
The Razor's Edge is probably the most traditional of these stories, unusual only in so far as the narrator actually calls himself Somerset Maugham and is addressed several times in the story by other characters as "Maugham" or "Mr. Maugham." In fact, Maugham writes in the beginning of the novel that the story is true but that he has changed the names of the characters to protect the actual participants from embarrassment. His use of himself as a character has the feel of an extra layer of "authenticity" to help readers suspend their disbelief. It has spawned speculation and discussion about the real people on whom the characters might be modeled. See http://home.talkcity.com/SpiritCir/sriwanderling/mentor.html.
In the end, Maugham's presence in the story is a device, and a fairly gratuitous one. As a character, the closest he comes to driving any of the action is to relay information to other characters. At one point he gives advice to another character, but she doesn't take it.
Chimera's author, on the other hand, plays a substantive role in the story. And I mean "play" in both senses of the word. By 1973, John Barth had already established himself as a writer willing to have fun with traditional conventions of storytelling. In his short story collection, Lost in the Funhouse (1968), the first story is told by a sperm and the final one bears the title "Anonymiad." The collection's most famous story, "The Menelaiad," is a frame tale with seven or eight nested frames and perhaps the most complicated punctuation ever achieved in the history of typesetting. Here's my favorite line:
Chimera features a story called the "Dunyazadiad," which is not narrated by John Barth, but by Dunyazade, the younger sister of Scheherezade, also a character in the story. Barth, genie-like, is conjured into the story by Scheherezade when she accidentally uses a magic phrase. Dunyazade then describes him as "a light-skinned fellow of forty or so, smooth-shaven and bald as a roc's egg. His clothes were simple but outlandish; he was tall and healthy and pleasant enough in appearance, except for queer lenses that he wore in frames over his eyes." Barth is as surprised to be conjured as the two girls are to have conjured him. He is nevertheless awed to meet the person he considers history's greatest storyteller. Dunyazade recounts his explanation of himself: "He was a writer of tales, he said -- anyhow a former writer of tales -- in a land on the other side of the world. At one time, we gathered, people in his country had been fond of reading; currently, however, the only readers of artful fiction were critics, other writers, and unwilling students who, left to themselves, preferred music and pictures to words."
Ultimately, Barth actually helps Scheherezade by conveying to her a thousand and one tales from the copy of The Arabian Nights that he keeps on the writing table in his study. Scheherezade uses the stories to avoid execution in the well-known legend. That Barth gives her stories she originally told is circular in a way that's amusing if you don't let yourself think about it too deeply.
Like The Razor's Edge, Galatea 2.2 is narrated by its author, which is to say the narrator refers to himself as "Richard Powers." But like Chimera, the author plays a significant part in the story. He is, in fact, the main character. It is the story of a writer's adventure with a software system of a type known as a neural net. This kind of software changes itself in response to certain types of inputs. In other words, it behaves as if it were learning. A neural net is not programmed; it is said to be "trained." This is for real; neural net software not only exists, it even has commercial applications. But Powers's novel is not about a commercial application. In it the narrator has the job of teaching the software to answer the kinds of essay questions found on a graduate qualifying examination in English literature. It explores, in other words, the effect of a liberal education on a nonhuman intelligence. As Powers is training the software, he relives the milestones in the history of his relationship, recently ended, with a woman he calls "C."
It's an erudite, profound, and even entertaining novel, but the way Powers names the characters seems maddeningly inept. For one thing, the software, which ultimately becomes a character in the story, goes through various versions, which Powers calls Implementation A, Implementation B, and so forth, or just A, B, C... When the software is at Implementation C, it's not always immediately clear whether the narrative is discussing the software or the woman, C, who is Powers's lost love. The ambiguity might be useful, but Implementation C is neither an interesting nor a long-lived version of the software.
There are certain conventions of "reader interface design" (avoid rhyming names for major characters, don't give two major characters names beginning with the same initial) so basic that I am sure Powers has eschewed them on purpose, but I can't figure out what the purpose is. And the only reason I can think of for his naming the narrator after himself is that, although the story is in the final analysis science fiction, it seems eminently plausible. Making himself the main character obviates speculation about whether the story concerns real people, since he seems to be saying the narrator is a real person -- Richard Powers.
These three cases, which are spread over 50 years, show authors inhabiting their own stories at ever deeper levels of involvement. But I'm not trying to describe a trend here. These are the only three cases of this practice I've found so far. But I think it's interesting, and I'd like to hear of other cases you might know about. Drop me a message I can share with the other readers about authors who describe or identify themselves in their novels.
Last October, I ranted about John Adams, the patron saint of the American police state (http://www.thirdlion.com/ATM24.html). I was (and still am) appalled that David McCullough generated so much interest in a monument to a man whose idea of political leadership was to suggest that the chief executive of the U.S. be called a king. Whatever contribution he made to the founding of this country (which appears to have been considerable), he was probably the most antidemocratic man to occupy the presidency until modern times.
I am gratified to note there are others who think the current effort to make Adams a rock star is misguided. Jeffrey L. Pasley (http://www.common-place.org/publick/200202.shtml) at the history site, Common-Place, argues that the new cult of Adams is an instance of the current rightward tilt in American politics. About Adams, he says, "Whatever his other virtues, John Adams stands out rather boldly in our history as the only president not dealing with armed rebellion who got to have his critics in the press arrested, jailed, or driven into hiding. Many others, from Washington to Nixon to Clinton, would have enjoyed similar privileges, but forbore seeking them."
5. E-mail to the Editor
Editor's Note: The messages we receive here at ATM often take on the character of a dialogue or conversation with the previous issue. You can find that issue on the web: http://www.thirdlion.com/ATM28.html.
News for Sabatini Fans
Another excellent issue of ATM [ATM #28], thanks. And good luck with the GWW, seems v. popular here with all the ads and fliers &c.
To the point: Scaramouche is right this moment in print, and, better news for Ave. Victor Hugo-bound readers, W.W. Norton is bringing more of Sabatini's backlist back into print this summer. Is that enough excitement for one day? Dare it be mentioned that Austin Tappan Wright's Islandia is also in print? Halcyon days...
More On Sabatini
Thanks for mentioning our website [http://sabatini.virtualave.net/] on Rafael Sabatini. Much appreciated. We also have a list on yahoogroups where we discuss all things related to Sabatini, from his books to his characters to movies made from his books to his religious and cultural beliefs, to you-name-it. One of our members has even published books from very early Sabatini stories, which he has sold to the members of the list.
Once again, thanks for mentioning Sabatini; he is indeed a superlative writer.
Jesse F. Knight
At The Margin has 1,154 subscribers, most of whom are interested in what you have to say about books or items you have read in ATM. Send a message to the editor and get those thoughts out to 1,153 others. Please limit your comment to 200 words and send it to ATM's editor, Floyd Kemske (email@example.com).
6. Do You Know Me?
For those who like puzzles as well as books, this department brings you the first sentence of a book by a famous writer that is at least 10 years old. The name of the author and title of the book will be in the next issue, so write your guess down. If you want to send me your guess, email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your name (so I can congratulate you in this space if you're correct) and let me know if you recognized the writer's style or if you know the book, or both.
This Issue's Sentence
It began with an advertisement in the Agony Column of The Times.
I'm waiting for your guesses.
Last Issue's Sentence
Who that cares much to know the history of man, and how the mysterious mixture behaves under the varying experiments of Time, has not dwelt, at least briefly, on the life of Saint Theresa, has not smiled with some gentleness at the thought of the little girl walking forth one morning hand-in-hand with her still smaller brother, to go and seek martyrdom in the country of the Moors?
There was one guess, by Elizabeth Hogan, who identified the line as coming from George Eliot's Introduction to Middlemarch Or a Study of Provincial Life. Elizabeth wrote, "I recognized it both from the style and from the mention of St. Teresa (and I will be very embarassed if I'm wrong -- this time I didn't even use the Internet to check my guess)." No need for embarrassment. Middlemarch is right on the money.
Mary Ann Evans (better known as George Eliot) was born in 1819 in Chilvers Coton, Warwickshire, England. She attended boarding school until she was 16, when her mother died, and she had to return home to keep house for her father. In 1841, she and her father moved to Coventry. After a year of reading books and talking with people in Coventry, the once devout young woman told her father she could no longer go to church. They argued, and she finally agreed to a compromise: she could think whatever she wanted, as long as she went to church. She maintained both this philosophical facade and her father's house until his death in 1849. In the meantime, from 1843 to 1846, she translated D. F. Straus's The Life of Jesus Critically Examined from German, and it became an influential volume in English rationalism.
In 1851, Evans wrote a book review for Westminster Review and was successful enough with it that she decided to move to London and become a freelance writer. She was soon subeditor at the Westminster Review and was said to have brought it back to the brilliance it had previously attained under John Stuart Mill. She became friends with Herbert Spencer, whose book on Social Darwinism, Social Statics, had just been published. There is apparently no truth to the rumor she was his mistress. Around this time, she began signing herself "Marian" instead of "Mary Ann."
Late in 1851, she met George Henry Lewes, an accomplished journalist who wrote literary and theatrical sections for another magazine. Lewes's wife had had a son by a man named Hunt in 1850, and Lewes, liberal thinker that he was, owned the boy and stayed on friendly terms with the father. But when his wife gave him a second son by the same man, he forsook his marriage. Since he had not protested the first child, however, he could not file suit for divorce. He and Marian Evans set up housekeeping while Lewes's wife continued to present him with children by Hunt (four in all, all of whom grew up with Lewes's name). Lewes and Evans were as good as married until he died in 1878. But Victorian society was scandalized by the union, and Marian Evans was estranged from her family and closest friends for the rest of her life.
With Lewes's encouragement, Marian Evans began to write stories based in the rural world of her childhood, and after three of them were published in Blackwood's Magazine in 1857, they were collected as the book Scenes of Clerical Life in 1858, published with the byline George Eliot. Most sources say she adopted the pseudonym because "writing was a man's profession," indicating she may have been prevented from publishing because she was a woman. But Jane Austen had a successful run as a novelist almost 40 years before, so I don't know exactly what to make of it, except perhaps she might have thought it easier to achieve success with a man's name, which was probably true.
The next year (1859), she published Adam Bede, and the year after that (1860) The Mill on the Floss, and the year after that (1861) Silas Marner. What she achieved in these early books was a unique (at that time) depth of sympathy combined with uncompromising moral judgment. In Silas Marner, for example, the only truly wicked people are minor characters, both of whom disappear early in the story. It is otherwise about good people grappling with their own feelings and principles in the face of profound moral dilemma. In the period of these three books, George Eliot imposters began to appear, and she had to claim the pseudonym publicly.
Her next two books were Romola (1863), a romance set in fifteenth century Florence and Felix Holt, the Radical (1856) a political novel. Neither of them gets much respect today. But in 1871 and 1872, her masterwork, Middlemarch, was published in eight magazine installments. The Encyclopedia Britannica says about it, "Under her hand the novel had developed from a mere entertainment into a highly intellectual form of art. Every class of Middlemarch society is depicted from the landed gentry and clergy to the manufacturers and professional men, the shopkeepers, publicans, farmers, and labourers. Several strands of plot are interwoven to reinforce each other by contrast and parallel. Yet the story depends not on close-knit intrigue but on showing the incalculably diffusive effect of the unhistoric acts of those who 'lived faithfully a hidden life and rest in unvisited tombs.'" I quote Britannica because its article on George Eliot is one of the best-written sources I could find. There are many, many web sites devoted to her; few are written in a style that can be called anything other than execrable.
After Middlemarch, she wrote Daniel Deronda (1876), which gives a sympathetic portrait of Jewish family life. It concerns the fates of a poor Jewish woman, Mirah Cohen, and Gwendolen Harleth, an upper- class woman who marries for money and regrets it. Some critics believe the characterization of Gwendolen Harleth was George Eliot's finest achievement.
In 1863, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes bought a big house in Regent's Park and made it a Sunday afternoon destination for Victorian intellectuals. When Lewes died in 1878, George Eliot lost a major source of stability, among other things. Overcome with the details of managing her now-complicated life and affairs, she married her banker, John Walter Cross, in 1880. She was 61, he was 40. She is therefore variously known as Mary Ann Evans, Marian Evans, and Marian Evans Cross, as well as George Eliot. She died the same year she married Cross.
The principal fan club for George Eliot is the George Eliot Fellowship, which doesn't appear to be on the web. But there is information at the web site of the George Eliot Fellowship of Japan: http://www.lang.nagoya-u.ac.jp/~matsuoka/Eliot.html#Fellowship. Here is a site with a bibliograpy, including links to nine works online: http://www.princeton.edu/~batke/eliot/. Here is a 1902 biography of her by Leslie Stephen, which has been posted on the web in HTML: http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/criticism/stephenl_geliot/geliot_titlepage.html.
7. BLUE UNDERLINED WORDS
I follow a lot of links in the course of compiling this letter, and some of the pages I visit look like they may be interesting or useful to you. I have only visited them and know nothing about them beyond what I could gather from the visit. So unless I say otherwise, I'm not endorsing anything, just bringing it to your attention. Click at your own risk.
"Economic Principals" ran for more than 18 years as the most thoughtful column in the Business Section of the Boston Globe, and now it's available on the web or through e-mail, no charge! No printer's ink! It tracks developments in the discipline of economics using profiles of the field's leading practitioners (principals -- get it?). Excellent writing and very informative. http://www.economicprincipals.com
The Museum of Hoaxes
Most of the world's forwarded e-mail messages (especially those bearing the diagnostic phrase "this is for real") are hoaxes. But hoaxing is not a new activity. This site documents hoaxes going back to the eighteenth century and categorizes them. http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/
The Society for Philosophical Inquiry
There is a grassroots philosophy movement thriving in this country. Every week, small groups of people meet in disparate places to discuss knotty issues and ideas in down-to-earth language unmediated by academic jargon. The meeting is called a Socrates Cafe. This web site is maintained by a nonprofit organization that promotes the concept. It will tell you all about it and give you tips for starting and facilitating one in your neighborhood. http://www.philosopher.org/
Universal Access to Human Knowledge
The last people to seriously attempt to provide universal access to human knowledge were the ancient Greeks who created the Library at Alexandria. Experts say they managed to pin down about half of it. But Brewster Kahle, inventor of the wide area information server (WAIS), says we are now in a position to try again. He created the Internet Archive, which now houses more information than the Library of Congress. Last November, he gave the keynote speech at the annual meeting of the American Society for Information Science and Technology. This page gives a precis. http://www.asis.org/Bulletin/Mar-02/hardin1.html
Worst Manual Contest
This site presents an annual award to the worst manual. The winner for 2002 is an employee manual that is condescending to the point of insult. It alternates promises of job security with threats of discharge. It would be funny if it didn't represent somebody's real idea of how to communicate with employees. http://www.tecstandards.com/Contest_Results_2001/Contest_Results_2002/contest_results_2002.html
Is this subversive of capitalism? Book Thing of Baltimore, Inc. is open 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on weekends to give away books. It does not accept money for them, but it does accept donations of books (all of which are stamped "Not for Resale"). In answering the frequently asked question "Is there a limit to how many books I can take?" the site says you can take no more than 150,000 books per day per person, an answer that appears to be tongue-in-cheek. http://www.bookthing.org/
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(c) Copyright 2002 Floyd Kemske
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