Time for a new chapter!

I am thrilled to announce that for the next eighteen months, I’ll be joining the fantastic crew at the Scholarly Communication Institute! I’m honored to join Bethany Nowviskie and her team on the current phase of SCI’s work: namely, assessing and rethinking methodological training in the humanities; helping to work on the framework of the stellar Praxis Program at the Scholars’ Lab; and contributing to the continued development of new-model scholarly publications. (For a fuller description, including more detail on the organizations we’ll be working with, see this Scholars’ Lab post.)

This new step marks an exciting transition for me. Over the past year, I’ve worked closely with Josh Greenberg to develop the Sloan Foundation’s budding Digital Information Technology program. In doing so, I’ve gotten to meet extraordinary people working on innovative projects related changes in scholarly communication in the digital age. In my new position with SCI, I’ll be focusing on a number of the same questions, but from a perspective grounded in the humanities. I’m also looking forward to working more deeply on #alt-ac issues, which I deeply care about (as these two posts reveal).

It will be an intense 18 months that I’m sure will be over too quickly. I can’t wait to dive in!

Teju Cole’s Open City

One of my favorite Brooklyn events is BAM’s Eat, Drink, and Be Literary series. When I was  brand new to NYC (still recent at three years ago), I convinced my not at all literarily-inclined spouse to check it out with me, and it remains one of the only bookish events he can stomach. Not only that, but the communal tables and delightful atmosphere foster such lovely conversation that we ended up meeting someone who has remained a good friend ever since. This same friend invited us to check out Teju Cole in this season’s line up, and I decided to read Open City before the event so that I could get more out of the evening.

I was initially in two minds about the book, though I’ve come to like it more upon reflection. I love the way the narrator’s city walks set the story’s rhythm. I know those walks: wandering, dreamy, alone, till miles pass and you’re nowhere near where you started, as measured either by your thoughts or the street signs. It feels like a natural rhythm for a story, even if many more threads are opened than ever get closed.

At the same time, the narrator, Julius, is detached and a little cold, often impatiently dismissing those that open up to him. At times his personality was so unlikeable that it became difficult for me to enjoy his first-person account. It’s easy to mis-attribute the narrator’s qualities to Cole himself; I caught myself doing so when I started reading, and at the BAM event, I realized I was far from the only one. When we discussed the book before Cole took the stage, some of my table mates remained convinced that the book was an autobiographical account. (They described Cole as a “Renaissance man” who was not only the writer, art historian, and photographer that he is, but also the trained and practicing psychiatrist that he creates in Julius–an awful lot for one person to do!) While clearly a mistake, such thinking also highlights Cole’s skillful writing–he narrates through Julius’s eyes so seamlessly, convincingly, and beautifully, that readers have a hard time recognizing the work as fiction.

I was particularly touched by a moment when the narrator, traveling in Brussels, finds himself in a club filled mostly with African immigrants, whom he assumes to be Congolese. After talking with the bartender, however, he learns that the majority of the clientele is Rwandan, and the revelation sends him reeling (accablé is the word that first comes to mind). The presence of so much suffering, endured and inflicted, becomes overwhelming for him. “It was as though the place had suddenly become heavy with all the stories these people were carrying. What losses, I wondered, lay behind their laughter and flirting?” –and yet, he notes, “They were exactly like young  people everywhere” (139).

The book ends with Julius attending a performance of Mahler’s  Ninth Symphony, and though I’m unfamiliar with the piece, Cole’s depiction of it is so finely wrought that I found myself holding my breath when he describes the silence at its conclusion:

The music stopped. Perfect silence in the hall. Simon Rattle was stock-still on the podium, his baton still in the air, and the musicians, too, were still, their instruments up. I looked around the hall, at the illuminated faces, all flooded with that silence. The seconds stretched on. No one coughed, and no one moved. We could hear the faint sound of traffic int he far distance outside the hall. But inside it, not a sound; even the hundreds of racing thoughts stopped. Then Rattle brought his hands down, and the auditorium exploded with applause. (254)

Still, at times Julius’s detachedness is hard to get past. One character levels an accusation of sexual assault against him, and we see no emotion whatsoever: he obliquely denies the charge to the reader, but doesn’t respond to the possible victim in any way, instead drifting off to the next city block and the next train of thought. Such absence is troubling, and makes Julius seem at times to be sleepwalking.

Cole turned out to be fantastic at BAM, and much warmer than I expected based on the book and his Twitter feed. I thought the evening would be much more politically charged, and I thought Cole himself would be more combative. Cole made a bit of a splash recently for his Twitter response to all the attention on Kony, which Atlantic Associate Editor Max Fisher included in his piece, “The Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012.” Fisher recognized the validity of Cole’s main point, but critiqued the resentment that seemed to permeate his perspective; an update on the piece suggested that Cole had not responded well to the criticism. Before hearing Cole speak in person, I was a little put off by his Twitter persona; he comes across as overly self-assured and closed to dialogue. I no longer think that’s the case–again, he was open, thoughtful, and warm at the BAM event. I look forward to reading his work in the future.

Teju Cole’s Open City

One of my favorite Brooklyn events is BAM’s Eat, Drink, and Be Literary series. When I was  brand new to NYC (still recent at three years ago), I convinced my not at all literarily-inclined spouse to check it out with me, and it remains one of the only bookish events he can stomach. Not only that, but the communal tables and delightful atmosphere foster such lovely conversation that we ended up meeting someone who has remained a good friend ever since. This same friend invited us to check out Teju Cole in this season’s line up, and I decided to read Open City before the event so that I could get more out of the evening.

I was initially in two minds about the book, though I’ve come to like it more upon reflection. I love the way the narrator’s city walks set the story’s rhythm. I know those walks: wandering, dreamy, alone, till miles pass and you’re nowhere near where you started, as measured either by your thoughts or the street signs. It feels like a natural rhythm for a story, even if many more threads are opened than ever get closed.

At the same time, the narrator, Julius, is detached and a little cold, often impatiently dismissing those that open up to him. At times his personality was so unlikeable that it became difficult for me to enjoy his first-person account. It’s easy to mis-attribute the narrator’s qualities to Cole himself; I caught myself doing so when I started reading, and at the BAM event, I realized I was far from the only one. When we discussed the book before Cole took the stage, some of my table mates remained convinced that the book was an autobiographical account. (They described Cole as a “Renaissance man” who was not only the writer, art historian, and photographer that he is, but also the trained and practicing psychiatrist that he creates in Julius–an awful lot for one person to do!) While clearly a mistake, such thinking also highlights Cole’s skillful writing–he narrates through Julius’s eyes so seamlessly, convincingly, and beautifully, that readers have a hard time recognizing the work as fiction.

I was particularly touched by a moment when the narrator, traveling in Brussels, finds himself in a club filled mostly with African immigrants, whom he assumes to be Congolese. After talking with the bartender, however, he learns that the majority of the clientele is Rwandan, and the revelation sends him reeling (accablé is the word that first comes to mind). The presence of so much suffering, endured and inflicted, becomes overwhelming for him. “It was as though the place had suddenly become heavy with all the stories these people were carrying. What losses, I wondered, lay behind their laughter and flirting?” –and yet, he notes, “They were exactly like young  people everywhere” (139).

The book ends with Julius attending a performance of Mahler’s  Ninth Symphony, and though I’m unfamiliar with the piece, Cole’s depiction of it is so finely wrought that I found myself holding my breath when he describes the silence at its conclusion:

The music stopped. Perfect silence in the hall. Simon Rattle was stock-still on the podium, his baton still in the air, and the musicians, too, were still, their instruments up. I looked around the hall, at the illuminated faces, all flooded with that silence. The seconds stretched on. No one coughed, and no one moved. We could hear the faint sound of traffic int he far distance outside the hall. But inside it, not a sound; even the hundreds of racing thoughts stopped. Then Rattle brought his hands down, and the auditorium exploded with applause. (254)

Still, at times Julius’s detachedness is hard to get past. One character levels an accusation of sexual assault against him, and we see no emotion whatsoever: he obliquely denies the charge to the reader, but doesn’t respond to the possible victim in any way, instead drifting off to the next city block and the next train of thought. Such absence is troubling, and makes Julius seem at times to be sleepwalking.

Cole turned out to be fantastic at BAM, and much warmer than I expected based on the book and his Twitter feed. I thought the evening would be much more politically charged, and I thought Cole himself would be more combative. Cole made a bit of a splash recently for his Twitter response to all the attention on Kony, which Atlantic Associate Editor Max Fisher included in his piece, “The Soft Bigotry of Kony 2012.” Fisher recognized the validity of Cole’s main point, but critiqued the resentment that seemed to permeate his perspective; an update on the piece suggested that Cole had not responded well to the criticism. Before hearing Cole speak in person, I was a little put off by his Twitter persona; he comes across as overly self-assured and closed to dialogue. I no longer think that’s the case–again, he was open, thoughtful, and warm at the BAM event. I look forward to reading his work in the future.

My MLA abstract on photography and mourning

Feedback welcome on this one… I’m excited by the idea but not wild about how I articulated it here. I could use a title, too.

Photography and Mourning in the Poetry of Anne Carson and Jacques Roubaud

The attempt to render the unsayable in language is the unending craft of writers, and never is it more challenging than in cases of mourning, when such expression is both necessary to the healing process and painfully evocative of past suffering. Including photographs in elegiac texts is a common means of giving voice to the impossible gap between experience and language. As Barthes notes in La chambre claire (1980), photographs provide an immediacy and an authenticity that written text cannot match, while also suggesting a simultaneity of past and future that always bears the mark of death.

Moving beyond the inclusion of photographs as straightforward memorials or reflections on the passage of time, poets Jacques Roubaud and Anne Carson incorporate photographs into their work in ways that accentuate the profound disconnect caused by loss. In the visually stunning Nox (2010), Carson includes photographs of her late brother among myriad other original and borrowed scraps, creating a physical space that holds both her thoughts and her brother’s. The photographs are a part of her mourning process, which she conceptualizes as translation: she studies her brother fragment by fragment, trying to reach something whole.

Roubaud also makes use of photographs and diary entries in Quelque chose noir (1986), a haunting elegy to his late wife, Alix Cléo–and yet in this case, the fragments are notable not for what they show, but for their absence. Roubaud relies on the photographs as a framework for his text–even the title refers to a series of Alix Cléo’s black-and-white photographs–and yet the photographs are excluded, becoming another element of the unsayable.

I will explore ways in which Carson and Roubaud look to photographs as key elements of the mourning process, not as memorials in themselves, but as passageways to understanding and expressing the unsayable.

Western by Christine Montalbetti

I dislike reading French books in translation, so it’s a bit my own fault for picking up Montalbetti’s novel, Western, translated into English by Betsy Wing. Despite actually having met her briefly at a reading in Boulder, I haven’t read Montalbetti’s work before, so the biggest issue about reading in translation is that I don’t know her own voice. I can’t tell whether I’m not crazy about the translation, or whether the translation is faithful but I am not wild about Montalbetti’s style. (Or, a third possibility: I’m annoyed with myself for buying the translation and can’t quite relax into the writing the way I normally would.) Whatever the reason, I found much of the prose to be choppy and forced, and I kept finding myself putting the book down or re-reading the same paragraph multiple times. This changed a bit toward the end of the book, when the style smoothed out considerably and I found it a much more pleasurable read. I’m a bit confused by my lukewarm reaction to the book, considering that two people whose book opinions I highly value–my advisor, Warren Motte, and my friend and former colleague, P–really enjoy her work.

The book’s premise is that of an old American western, but rather than being plot-driven, Montalbetti withholds the action as long as possible in favor of exploring endlessly meandering details. In one passage early on, I loved the personification of words in a conversation–those that tumble easily from the lips of a confident and relaxed participant, compared with others that fight to leave the mouth of a shy and awkward party to the conversation. This character, Dirk,

look[s] all around for words as though they already existed somewhere in a solid state and just had to be extracted from whatever out-of-the-way place they’re hiding in… and when he finds one of them, he grabs hold of it for you by the scruff of its neck and drags it, without further ado–struggling because of the weight of this cumbersome, limp individual, resisting him with all the power of its passivity–all the way up to the mouth that opens to submit the prisoner to Ted and our thirty-year-old. (44)

This slow and detailed progression repeats itself to create the book’s rhythm. Ants in the shadow of a character’s boot are explored in depth and with great psychological attention,  and similar detail is afforded to the movement of a drop of water, light in a mirror, a character on a screen. This sentence describing the boot that forms the ants’ terrain was lovely, if a bit overwritten:

The boot’s style is identifiable, with its beveled heel and the topstitching running up the leg in a wavy pattern–should we be seeing hills in all this stitching, their slopes full of game, their bucolic undulations so pleasing to the eye?–or is yours a more maritime imagination, leading you to think about the traces left by every obstinate returning wave on the sand of a beach–not the ribbons of foam that float ont eh air like fragments that have come loose from a mummy’s wrappings (something you might come across on a very windy day), but those embellished drawings, those arabesques that that same regathering wave pours over: pulling back to consider what it’s inscribed before coming again to scrawl some new figure with wild daubs of its brush, adding to its earlier lines in the sand. (7)

In the end, as I mentioned, the book surprised me in quite a positive way, drawing me in much more than it did initially. And actually, as I’m writing this now, I’m finding myself wanting to go back and give it another shot, to get another glimpse of those details so intricately explored. I’ll definitely give Montalbetti another try–but next time, I’ll read her in French.

Western by Christine Montalbetti

I dislike reading French books in translation, so it’s a bit my own fault for picking up Montalbetti’s novel, Western, translated into English by Betsy Wing. Despite actually having met her briefly at a reading in Boulder, I haven’t read Montalbetti’s work before, so the biggest issue about reading in translation is that I don’t know her own voice. I can’t tell whether I’m not crazy about the translation, or whether the translation is faithful but I am not wild about Montalbetti’s style. (Or, a third possibility: I’m annoyed with myself for buying the translation and can’t quite relax into the writing the way I normally would.) Whatever the reason, I found much of the prose to be choppy and forced, and I kept finding myself putting the book down or re-reading the same paragraph multiple times. This changed a bit toward the end of the book, when the style smoothed out considerably and I found it a much more pleasurable read. I’m a bit confused by my lukewarm reaction to the book, considering that two people whose book opinions I highly value–my advisor, Warren Motte, and my friend and former colleague, P–really enjoy her work.

The book’s premise is that of an old American western, but rather than being plot-driven, Montalbetti withholds the action as long as possible in favor of exploring endlessly meandering details. In one passage early on, I loved the personification of words in a conversation–those that tumble easily from the lips of a confident and relaxed participant, compared with others that fight to leave the mouth of a shy and awkward party to the conversation. This character, Dirk,

look[s] all around for words as though they already existed somewhere in a solid state and just had to be extracted from whatever out-of-the-way place they’re hiding in… and when he finds one of them, he grabs hold of it for you by the scruff of its neck and drags it, without further ado–struggling because of the weight of this cumbersome, limp individual, resisting him with all the power of its passivity–all the way up to the mouth that opens to submit the prisoner to Ted and our thirty-year-old. (44)

This slow and detailed progression repeats itself to create the book’s rhythm. Ants in the shadow of a character’s boot are explored in depth and with great psychological attention,  and similar detail is afforded to the movement of a drop of water, light in a mirror, a character on a screen. This sentence describing the boot that forms the ants’ terrain was lovely, if a bit overwritten:

The boot’s style is identifiable, with its beveled heel and the topstitching running up the leg in a wavy pattern–should we be seeing hills in all this stitching, their slopes full of game, their bucolic undulations so pleasing to the eye?–or is yours a more maritime imagination, leading you to think about the traces left by every obstinate returning wave on the sand of a beach–not the ribbons of foam that float ont eh air like fragments that have come loose from a mummy’s wrappings (something you might come across on a very windy day), but those embellished drawings, those arabesques that that same regathering wave pours over: pulling back to consider what it’s inscribed before coming again to scrawl some new figure with wild daubs of its brush, adding to its earlier lines in the sand. (7)

In the end, as I mentioned, the book surprised me in quite a positive way, drawing me in much more than it did initially. And actually, as I’m writing this now, I’m finding myself wanting to go back and give it another shot, to get another glimpse of those details so intricately explored. I’ll definitely give Montalbetti another try–but next time, I’ll read her in French.

On books that should be shorter

I recognize that this post will make me sound lazy. I’m thinking about Very Long Books. Mostly, I’m thinking about Very Long Books that Should Be Much Shorter. Double points if they are written by male authors and receive enormous acclaim before anybody reads them. It’s a huge pet peeve, and yet I’m taken in by the hype again and again.

I’m about halfway through Murakami’s (very long and highly anticipated) 1Q84, and it’s not a bad story. Murakami has fantastic imagination and weaves a compelling narrative structure, and 1Q84 does have these attributes (albeit not nearly to the same degree as Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, both of which captivated me). The prose doesn’t blow me away, but I tend to be a little more generous on translated works because it’s hard to know whether the issue is in the original or in the translation. Granted, in this case one of the problems is endless repetition of certain descriptions or details, which is doubtlessly not a translation issue. Regardless, I find the story to be good, and I do want to find out how the plot unfolds.

But, does it need to be so blasted long? As I said, I’m halfway through, and I can’t think of how the story could possibly be stretched out another 500 pages. Too much filler, too much repetition. I have very little patience for that. Where was his editor?

I’m afraid that as much as I love some of Murakami’s other work, this one may well be lumped into a pile with Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom and Roberto Bolaño’s 2666.  (Franzen’s will be at the bottom of the stack; after his recent pieces on e-books and on Edith Wharton, I feel my jaw start to clench a little when I see his name.) All three of these books received great acclaim before they ever hit bookshelves, in no small part due to each author’s past success. (In the case of 2666, Bolaño’s death prior to the book’s completion also added a bit of drama to its release). And they’re all extremely long.

I don’t mind very long books. But I loathe books that should have been shorter. Lots of books are longer than they should be, but the trait is particularly noticeable in the biggest of the big. It seems to me that these books also tend to be written by men; whether that’s true (and representative of some kind of monument- and skyscraper-building tendency) or whether it means nothing beyond the fact that male authors are still far more widely represented on publishers’ lists and in critics’ reviews (even on NPR, which talks about male writers 70% of the time), I don’t know, and it bugs me either way. With these kinds of books, by the time I’m three hundred pages in, I feel like I get it; I understand the characters and the narrative and the style, and I don’t really need six or seven hundred pages more. 2666 was much more psychologically difficult than most because of the interminable list of women victims in the fourth section, but even without that roadblock, the book would have been a little much.

The big thing for me is that not all long books are like that. In some cases, the entire huge thing is finely wrought and compellingly delivered. For instance, this NYTimes review (on 1Q84) suggests that if you must read an enormously long book, might as well make it worthwhile and go for Proust. That is the gold standard for what long books should be. Infinite Jest is also like this. I recently found myself on a long subway ride with nothing to read besides what was already on my Kindle app, and I was drawn to start on Infinite Jest for a second time. A second time! The wonderful thing was that as I started back on the first few pages, everything fit perfectly. I remember the extended feeling of disorientation when I read through Infinite Jest the first time; now, every character and every episode made perfect sense and felt like it simply had to be there.

Everybody knows Pascal’s quip about lacking the time to write a shorter letter (and Google tells me that similar quotations are attributed to Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, and others); I wish more people would take it to heart. I love short stories in part for this reason: the economy of that the form imposes on the narrative often results in a wonderful density and clarity, with everything extraneous stripped away. There’s no reason to write a novel if a short story will better highlight the particular character, emotion, situation, or style that the writer wants to focus on. And there’s certainly no reason to write a novel that’s three times longer than necessary if a shorter one will suffice. When a book is so voluminous as to make it impractical to read on my commute, it also better be so good that I can’t bear not to lug it with me. That was the case with Infinite Jest, but 1Q84 doesn’t make the cut.