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Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

Posts Tagged ‘popular literature

[WRITING] “The Ruination of Written Words”

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Gastón Gordillo’s Savage Minds essay about the historic transience of the written word makes for compelling, if sad, reading.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, numerous libraries and an unknown quantity of books disintegrated with it. Amid a rising Christianity hostile to traces of paganism, the texts of many authors admired in Roman antiquity were turned to dust and the memory of their existence dissolved. Pieces of writing by noted figures such as Cicero or Virgil certainly survived, but the majority of what these men wrote has been lost. This was an epochal moment in the history of writing: an imperial collapse so profound that it physically disintegrated vast amounts of texts, erasing them from human memory.

Some books from ancient Rome were saved from this massive vanishing of written words only because a few copies survived for over a thousand years in the libraries of European monasteries. This survival was often the outcome of pure chance: that is, a set of conjunctural factors somehow allowed those books, and not others, to overcome the wear and tear and ruination of paper and ink by the physical pressures and cuts inflicted on them by the weather and by the living forms attracted to them, primarily insects, mice, and humans. In these monasteries, many ancient books and their words disintegrated after a few centuries, gone forever. But others lingered and were eventually copied by hand again on new and more robust paper, which could withstand atmospheric and bodily pressures for the next two to three centuries. Three hundred years or so later, another monk would grab a manuscript about to disintegrate and copy those words again. Who knows how many amazing books were eaten away by bugs simply because no monk chose to save them from their ruination? One of the books that miraculously survived in a monastery over a millennia of chance encounters with the void was Lucretius’ extraordinary philosophical treatise De rerum natura, The Nature of Things.

What got me thinking about the ruination of written words is Stephen Greenblatt’s fascinating (if uneven) book The Swerve, which narrates how in 1417 a book-hunter discovered Lucretius’ The Nature of Things in a remote monastery. In my book Rubble, I examined how different forms of ruination, from the Spanish conquest to the soy boom, have created constellations of nodes of rubble in northern Argentina, many of which are perceived by locals to be haunted (Gordillo 2014). I therefore read The Swerve with an eye sensitive to the destruction of places and matter and the affective materiality of their debris. The richness conveyed by Greenblatt’s story of the vanishing of Roman books reveals that the physical disintegration and afterlives of rubble also involve the written word, which in the modern world is often presented as an emblem of human endurance.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 26, 2015 at 3:16 pm

[WRITING] “The entire board of the Organization for Transformative Works has resigned”

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This is noteworthy. From the Daily Dot‘s Cynthia McKelvey:

Following a controversy around its most recent board election, the non-profit group that runs the fanfiction hub Archive Of Our Own (AO3) announced on Sunday its entire board had resigned.

Now the leadership of the Organization for Transformative Works is up in the air.

Andrea Horbinski, a current member of the seven-member board, was up for re-election to two open board seats, but she came in last in the members election. The membership, made up of roughly 8,000 fans who paid a $10 membership fee, voted for Matty Bowers, Atiya Hakeem, Alex Tischer, Katarina Harju, Aline Carrão, and Horbinski in that order.

During a public board meeting on Sunday, the OTW board appointed Horbinski back onto the board to fill an unfinished term on a third open seat not included in the election. Horbinski voted in favor of the motion to re-appoint herself to the open seat, rather than abstaining from the vote. The board meeting came to an abrupt halt after several OTW members voiced their opposition to the decision, pointing out that other candidates got more votes than Horbinski in the election.

OTW board members work on a volunteer-basis only. In addition to running AO3, OTW also runs a legal committee, a fandom wiki site, the fansite preservation project Open Doors, and an academic journal.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 25, 2015 at 8:45 am

[LINK] The New Republic on the New Utopians of science fiction

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The trend that Jeet Heer examines at The New Republic, of science fiction that offers hope not fear for the future is one I can get behind. If, of course, this actually is a trend.

How will the world end? Take your pick among an array of near-future catastrophes: rising sea levels, overpopulation, mass extinction of species, nuclear proliferation, uncontainable viruses, not to mention more fanciful but alarmingly plausible scenarios like a giant asteroid or superintelligent computers run amok. The prophets of doom are unusually loud in our time, and almost every vision of the future, whether by sober ecologists or wild-eyed science fiction writers, carries with it the stench of despair. The collapse of civilization has become its own narrative cliché.

But dark predictions have always had a sunny counterpart—the dream of a better world. Just as heaven and hell are complementary destinations, so are utopia and dystopia rivalrous siblings, each offering radically different outcomes, but both concerned with the idea of how humanity can shape its common destiny. The first utopias offered a revolutionary idea: The social order, as it exists, is neither inevitable nor the best we can hope for. Thomas More’s 1516 tour of an ideal island state called Utopia gave the genre its name, an idea later refined by Francis Bacon in the New Atlantis (1627), in which lost sailors discover an island where the inhabitants have perfected the scientific method. Catastrophe, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, was ordained from above; sickness, plague, famine, these were out of the control of man. Utopia was a place of perfect social control, where the weather always behaved itself.

Countering these hopes were the satirical responses of more pessimistic writers like Jonathan Swift, whose Gulliver’s Travels (1726) can be read as an early warning about false utopias. Brook Farm was a notorious mid-nineteenth-century experiment in communal living that some of America’s leading writers, including Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne, tried and failed to establish in the 1840s. (Hawthorne’s disillusionment with the experience, and his general scorn for hare-brained utopianism, was recorded in his 1852 novel The Blithedale Romance.) Yet if utopia is easy to mock, it remains a central inspiration for social activism. Countless practical reform movements have taken heart from utopian imaginings. Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) was a central text to Progressive-era America, just as H.G. Wells furthered socialism with the creation of a fictional world state in his 1933 novel, The Shape of Things to Come.

In contemporary culture, utopia has all but disappeared from our imaginative map while dystopias proliferate. The social order is no longer broken down by a failure of the political imagination, but by catastrophic climate events that deliver a new interval of geologic time: a dry or frozen planet beset by anarchy, population decline, even new speciation. Sometime after 1972, a global thermonuclear war leads to the desertification of the Earth, the near extinction of our species, and the rise of the Planet of the Apes (as well as seven sequels). Since 1979, Mad Max and his merry crew have fought for what little gasoline and water is left in a landscape of parched, desolate highways. In novel after novel, written with her characteristic gingery wit, Margaret Atwood has given us bad news about the ways in which humanity can mess up our collective destiny, whether it be the eugenic theocracy of The Handmaid’s Tale—her response to the rise of the religious right in the 1980s—or the genetic engineering gone awry in the MaddAddam trilogy. Cormac McCarthy doesn’t spell out the exact nature of the catastrophe that wrecks the world of his bleak 2006 novel The Road, but the barren, ashen landscape of the novel feels post-nuclear. In the 2013 film Snowpiercer, a train runs on an infinite loop over a flash-frozen Earth, its inhabitants trapped in a closed ecosystem ruled by martial law.

Climate change, so difficult to grapple with because it requires the cooperation of nations across the globe, points to how our environmental problems are fused with the narrowing of our political options. The end of history, much heralded by Francis Fukuyama, has been accompanied not by a flourishing of democracy but by plutocratic-friendly gridlock that prevents any political action that challenges the interests of entrenched wealth. The enemy of utopia isn’t dystopia, but oligarchy. The cultural critic Fredric Jameson summed up the dilemma of our epoch when he quipped that someone once said, “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”

Written by Randy McDonald

November 16, 2015 at 6:21 pm

[LINK] The New Yorker on Daesh’s weaponization of Arabic poetry

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As someone with a Master’s degree in English, Robyn Creswell and Bernard Haykel’s article in The New Yorker, “Battle Lines”, tells an unsettling tale about the successful appropriation by Daesh of some of the key features of Middle Eastern popular culture.

On October 11, 2014, according to Islamic State-affiliated Twitter accounts a woman going by the name Ahlam al-Nasr was married in the courthouse of Raqqa, Syria, to Abu Usama al-Gharib, a Vienna-born jihadi close to the movement’s leadership. ISIS social media rarely make marriage announcements, but al-Nasr and al-Gharib are a jihadi power couple. Al-Gharib is a veteran propagandist, initially for Al Qaeda and now for ISIS. His bride is a burgeoning literary celebrity, better known as “the Poetess of the Islamic State.” Her first book of verse, “The Blaze of Truth,” was published online last summer and quickly circulated among militant networks. Sung recitations of her work, performed a cappella, in accordance with ISIS’s prohibition on instrumental music, are easy to find on YouTube. “The Blaze of Truth” consists of a hundred and seven poems in Arabic—elegies to mujahideen, laments for prisoners, victory odes, and short poems that were originally tweets. Almost all the poems are written in monorhyme—one rhyme for what is sometimes many dozens of lines of verse—and classical Arabic metres.

Little is known about Ahlam al-Nasr, but it seems that she comes from Damascus and is now in her early twenties. Her mother, a former law professor, has written that al-Nasr “was born with a dictionary in her mouth.” She began writing poems in her teens, often in support of Palestine. When, in the spring of 2011, protests in Syria broke out against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad, al-Nasr took the side of the demonstrators. Several poems suggest that she witnessed the regime’s crackdown at first hand and may have been radicalized by what she saw:

[. . .]

ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other Islamist movements produce a huge amount of verse. The vast majority of it circulates online, in a clandestine network of social-media accounts, mirror sites, and proxies, which appear and disappear with bewildering speed, thanks to surveillance and hacking. On militant Web sites, poetry-discussion forums feature couplets on current events, competitions among duelling poets, who try to outdo one another in virtuosic feats, and downloadable collections with scholarly accoutrements. (“The Blaze of Truth” includes footnotes that explain tricky syntax and unusual rhyme schemes.)

Analysts have generally ignored these texts, as if poetry were a colorful but ultimately distracting by-product of jihad. But this is a mistake. It is impossible to understand jihadism—its objectives, its appeal for new recruits, and its durability—without examining its culture. This culture finds expression in a number of forms, including anthems and documentary videos, but poetry is its heart. And, unlike the videos of beheadings and burnings, which are made primarily for foreign consumption, poetry provides a window onto the movement talking to itself. It is in verse that militants most clearly articulate the fantasy life of jihad.

“Al-shi‘r diwan al-‘arab,” runs an ancient maxim: “Poetry is the record of the Arabs”—an archive of historical experience and the epitome of their literature. The authority of verse has no rival in Arabic culture. The earliest poems were composed by desert nomads in the centuries before the revelation of the Koran. The poems are in monorhyme and one of sixteen canonical metres, making them easy to memorize. The poets were tribal spokesmen, celebrating the virtues of their kin, cursing their enemies, recalling lost loves, and lamenting the dead, especially those killed in battle. The Koran has harsh words for these pre-Islamic troubadours. “Only those who have strayed follow the poets,” the Surah of the Poets reads. “Do you not see that they wander lost in every valley, and say what they do not do?” But the poets could not be written off so easily, and Muhammad often found it useful to co-opt them. A number of tribal poets converted and became his companions, praising him in life and elegizing him after his death.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 16, 2015 at 6:17 pm

[LINK] “The Hidden Message of Saga, or, Why We Can’t Help But Love It”

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At Women Write About Comics, Nadia Bauman does her best to explain why Saga is such a hit graphic novel.

During the last few years, I have read tons of books, and just a few of them had what I call a “magic wardrobe” effect.

You might have experienced it too: you open the book, time collapses, and you’re suddenly on the last page and the clock displays 4am. There is some distinctive type of story that transfers the reader to another world, where “normal” time and mundane worries (like early wake ups) don’t matter. My personal list of “magic wardrobe” readings is short; besides some works by King, Bujold, and Rowling, it includes only one comic book—Saga. And since the moment I swallowed Volume One, I didn’t stop asking myself, what’s so special about this graphic novel.

Everybody is crazy about Saga. It got three Eisner Awards, Hugo Awards for Best Graphic Story, six Harvey Awards and, by all reports, obvious, ultimate, universal, indisputable public acclamation. The timeline of the indie comics industry is now divided into “Before Saga” and “After Saga” epochs. But after reading dozens of praiseful articles and reviews, I didn’t find an answer—how come Saga conquered our hearts so easily?

Certainly, behind the ease of the story flow there’s a big and complex work. Saga is loaded with exceptional features, but what exactly makes it so dramatically distinguished from all others creator owned comics? Is it the unique world? There are thousands of well-designed sci-fi and fantasy universes in every media around. The meaningful look at parenting and family life? I don’t think this alone could buy such all-absorbing success among a diverse and variegated community of comic lovers. The colorful artwork with weird and vivid characters? Still not enough. An inventive idea to merge Shakespearian motives with the genre of space opera? C’mon, you can’t be serious! Lying Cat? Okay, this one looks good…

There must be something beyond all these virtues that reviewers praise. Something more powerful than the charm of a Star Wars like-universe, more compelling than the story of family life against the background of the intergalactic war, more eye-catching than a sex scene between a white dude and a giant female spider. Something essential, probably even subliminal. I recalled paranoid theories about The Lion King movie and ended up searching for hidden messages. It’s not likely that Saga has the word “sex” formed by clouds of dust somewhere between its panels—after all, we’re talking about the book with a love scene between… oh, I’ve already mentioned that.

Yet I did find the hidden message, which is big and important enough to glue our eyes to the series.

What is it? Go to the site to read.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 12, 2015 at 2:58 am

[LINK] “Why Iraqi women are turning to the Internet to buy books”

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Al Monitor‘s Omar Al-Jaffal writes about how book markets and their female buyers have adapted to the trying situations in Iraq. On the one hand, it’s great that books can achieve their liberatory potential anywhere, and that markets have adapted to even the trying conditions in Iraq. On the other, it’s a terrible shame that this adaptation was necessary.

The deteriorating security situation in the Iraqi capital has prevented Noor Jamal Abdul Hamid from going to Mutanabbi Street to shop for books and stationery. Abdul Hamid is a young woman who found herself crippled by risky roads and social restrictions that prevent her from leaving her house. Despite all this, she manages to read plenty of books and hosts discussions of what she reads over Twitter.

Abdul Hamid, who was born in Baghdad in 1991, is a graduate of Alrafidain College. She is currently unemployed and reads to pass the time. In order to understand what is going on in her society and the mysterious Iraqi political life, she opted for “finding the truth in books,” as she told Al-Monitor, and so created her own library.

But how did she manage to collect 300 books, including novels, poetry and philosophy, when she had no access to a bookstore? “I found a bookstore on Facebook that delivers books to my doorstep,” she said.

This trend has emerged as a result of the security situation, giving housebound women access to books, and has also created a successful venue of commerce.

Abdul Hamid taught her friend Saja Imad how to order books over the phone or through Facebook, and Saja began to collect a set of books of her own.

“Reading is fun. It is like you are talking to someone else in another world,” Imad told Al-Monitor. She offered the following advice: “Whenever you feel like talking to someone, do not hesitate to grab a book and read.”

Written by Randy McDonald

November 9, 2015 at 6:44 pm

[LINK] “My 2.5 Star Trip to Amazon’s Bizarre New Bookstore”

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Former indie bookseller Dustin Kurtz reviews Amazon’s new bookstore at The New Republic. I like, not least for the humour.

The store is physically odd. It betrays inexperience with retail. The stacks are situated too close to one another so that you have to brush past other browsers—Paco Underhill’s famed “butt brush”—and can’t comfortably bend down to see books on lower shelves. The first display tables are too near the doors, which discourages browsing. Above the shelves along the walls are bays of books, spine out—decoratively arranged overstock. They have no bearing on the books below them. Kindles are sold, of course, but also Amazon Fire TV sticks. Quite a bit of real estate is devoted to a line called Amazon Basics which appear to be, for the most part, bluetooth speakers modelled after the ones that Nicki Minaj interacts with in the beginning of her music videos, the kind that look like pink lozenges.

The store assumes familiarity with Amazon.com. This goes beyond understanding whether 4.5 stars is, in fact, a good if oddly precise number of stars. A shelf labelled “Most Wishlisted Cookbooks” faced the line of excited customers outside. Goodreads—a property of Amazon—is mentioned in displays. There is a desk labelled Amazon Answers. Presumably the questions asked of Amazon are answered by a human employee of the store, though it’s unclear if some sort of Delphic process involving candles and chanting occurs.

Written by Randy McDonald

November 6, 2015 at 6:05 pm


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