“Optical character recognition, or OCR, is a technology that came up with computing in general. In a lot of ways, it still feels like magic – even though it’s a problem we solved long ago. Today’s Tedium tells its story.”
“Of all the arts, writers most envy music, for being both abstract and immediate, and also in no need of translation. But painting might come a close second, for the way that the expression and the means of expression are coterminous—whereas novelists are stuck with the one-damn-thing-after-another need for word and sentence and paragraph and background and psychological buildup in order to heftily construct that climactic scene.”
“My work has at times been criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia. That is partly my fault, … but it is not nostalgia’s fault, if fault is to be found. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, … the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection.”
“Some writers swoon over language: ‘It’s my muse, my lover’, and so on. Well, it’s my enemy, and I seem to spend all my life arguing and battling with it. Also, sitting down at a desk aggravates my sacroiliac joint, so by the end of a week of solid writing I’m pretty much bed-bound or crawling around on all fours. What else? Writing is static, unsocial, and restricts opportunities for the uptake of vitamin D via dermal synthesis.”
That might be because literary adult books need time and distance, not topicality – or at least that’s the idea. “Anecdotal evidence would suggest to me that YA novels take, on average, less time to get from idea to hardcover than literary novels, so that may be a factor in all of this. But there’s also the fact that in literary publishing, there’s a definite ick factor that comes along with being too timely.”
Well, at least in the UK: “Poetry book sales have gone up by more than 50% in four years, while there are now more than 30 annual events devoted to celebrating spoken and written verse.”
“In April of , he broke with Russian social-democratic orthodoxy and, in a set of radical theses, called for a socialist revolution in Russia. A number of his own close comrades denounced him. In a sharp riposte, Lenin quoted Mephistopheles from Goethe’s masterwork: ‘Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life.'”
“I was a traditional product of the Cold War. … There was little sympathy for Communism in our house. So I felt like le Carré’s character George Smiley, who learns of yet another betrayal: I felt like I had taken an elbow deep in the gut.”
There are only about 50 lexicographers working at dictionary companies in the United States today, Kory Stamper estimated. But their work, she believes, remains as vital as it was in Noah Webster’s day. “There’s something to having a bunch of nerds sitting in an office dispassionately reading lots and lots of material and distilling the meaning of a word as it’s been used in lots of places,” she said. “It really is this weird democratic process.”
“Fluency in English is endemic of the deep class-based divisions that continue to plague Indian society. A 2014 report from the Centre for Research and Debates in Development Policy in India found that only 20 percent of the population speaks English, and only 4 percent of the population speaks the language fluently. The report emphasizes that men in India who spoke fluent English earned 34 percent higher wages than those who had some fluency.”
Jennifer Schuessler’s guide on the trip is Kory Stamper, one of Merriam-Websters new generation of social-media stars.
“Newspaper style has long been to omit that final comma. But every stylebook that allows omission of the Oxford comma includes a caveat, often forgotten: Once the sentence moves beyond a simple series, that comma might be necessary for clarity.”
Let us be reasonable here. I am too old and have published too much to be thought ignorant enough not to be aware of the objections put forward by the miffed 13. But, I contend, writers who publish are always writing at the top of their form. No one writes down. It’s difficult, almost impossible. Writers cursed with too much “talent” are unable to stoop to conquer.
“Any number of critics since Bergonzi have regurgitated the idea that the novel as we know it today persists in a kind of zombie state, stripped of whatever vital essence it once had (and this in spite of the fact that novels are being published and consumed in unprecedented numbers). But the argument for the novel’s demise has its own kind of ghoulish quality to it by now.”
Eric Grundhauser tells the story of “Cherubina de Gabriak” of St. Petersburg and the two great Russian Symbolist poets who fell in love with her, even though she didn’t exist.
Oh yes, he did. Starting in 1858, Whitman (under one of his man pseudonyms) wrote an advice column for the New York Atlas titled “Manly Health and Training.” Dan Piepenbring suggests that, behind Whitman’s vigorous exhortation, his advice betrayed more than a bit of insecurity about masculinity.
“Many believe we live in a post-literate age, one in which, writer Douglas Glover concludes, “books have become irrelevant.” Others disagree, some vehemently. His point is not, however, one I want to enter into a debate over. I don’t want to beat up on the degraded tastes of the common reader, analyse the impact of the digital revolution on reading habits, or make an appeal for the government to do more to address stubbornly high rates of illiteracy. What I find of most concern and significance is the rise in aliteracy—the growth of a population that can read but simply doesn’t want to.”
“By the numbers, the best opening sentences to novels do tend to be short. Prolific author James Patterson averages 160 clichés per 100,000 words (that’s 115 more than the revered Jane Austen), and Vladimir Nabokov used the word mauve 44 times more often than the average writer in the past two centuries.”
“Do today’s young writers, who live in a time when it is regarded more as a chronic condition than a death sentence, feel unqualified to approach the subject? Is it akin to the recent debates around cultural appropriation in writing, most recently stoked by Lionel Shriver: are writers uncomfortable with their right – or perceived lack thereof – to fictionalise experiences not their own?”
“Michael [Collins] has too much talent to succeed as a crime writer,” wrote William O’Rourke. “He doesn’t possess the fatal lack of talent required. America really doesn’t possess enough of a literary culture anymore to maintain a writer like Michael.”
“Today we are less troubled by the homogenizing effects of entertainment than by our deep partisan divisions in both politics and art. And the cultural shift that today’s literary writers struggle to parse is not the impact of TV sitcoms, but of social media and the internet. Even the notion of escape means something very different in the age of Trump than it meant during the Clinton years. In response, some of these writers have shifted their narratives into a safer, more myth-friendly past; others continue to deliver the hopeful feelings of a simpler time.”
“Paying attention is the only thing that guarantees insight. It is the only real weapon we have against power, too. You can’t fight things you can’t actually see. The power a writer has is the power to make things visible, and they are the things that we don’t typically look at or think about. Telling a story about someone has enormous power. People forget a headline. They remember a story.”
“The case of the dairy-truck drivers’ comma has got several things going for it. It’s got David and Goliath in the story of the little guy sticking it to a corporate boss. It’s got men driving around in trucks with copies of Strunk & White in the glove compartment. And you know what else it’s got? Of course you do. It’s got milk. For all the backlash against the dairy industry—the ascendance of soy milk, almond milk, hemp milk (note the asyndeton), none of which, by the way, are really milk, because you can’t milk a hazelnut—there is something imperishably wholesome about cows and milk.”
If there were a comma after “shipment,” it might have been clear that the law exempted the distribution of perishable foods. But the appeals court on Monday sided with the drivers, saying the absence of a comma produced enough uncertainty to rule in their favor. It reversed a lower court decision. In other words: Oxford comma defenders won this round.
The story of the book is intense and exciting and horrifying and electric – and the work itself “is the debut of North Korea’s Solzhenitsyn,” said one human rights activist. The author’s identity can never be known, and his handwriting can’t be photographed to keep North Korean officials from identifying him.
Édouard Louis, author of the smashing bestseller “The End of Eddy,” says he’s furious at the left-wing, and he demands that they do better: “When I see my father voting for Le Pen, I am revolted by the current government and its failings. Of course, I’m revolted by the right, but I never expected the right to do anything for the lower classes, but the left … the left has stopped speaking about poverty, misery and exclusion.”
Books are part of the resistance to any repressive regime. “How many times, and in ways that did not seem to require my consent, have I suddenly and in my own bed found myself to be Russian or French or Japanese? How many times have I been a peasant or an aristocrat? How many times have I been a woman? I have been free and without liberty, gay, disabled, old, loved and loathed.”
An essay in “Tin House” from a few weeks ago opened the floodgates. But still, no names are out there. For instance: “A former visiting professor was still the stuff of legend for, in the words of one woman, ‘trying to fuck everyone.’ Years later, that man had a regular NPR slot and every time I heard his voice I thought, ‘The guy who tried to fuck everyone is telling America what books to read.'”
But the numbers for print books are not due to e-books gaining or waning in popularity. Instead, they’re due to events beyond booksellers’ control – like Brexit, the U.S. election (and its result), and, in Ireland, the popularity of 2016 titles marking 100 years since the Easter Rising.
Yes, it’s time to move beyond James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (and even beyond Emma Donoghue and Tana French).