Thursday, September 30, 2010

Banned books week: Joyce's Ulysses

Since Nathan Bransford asked in a post this spring what readers consider the most influential book in history, I've been meaning to blog about how I answered his question (my answer was Homer's Odyssey). Why do I think that? Well, a corner of the reason is that it's the archetype of one of the most compelling plots in storytelling: "Voyage & Return" the way Christopher Booker's The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories calls it out.

Another reason I answered Nathan's question as I did is that Homer's Odyssey is the classical epic that James Joyce chose as the model and substrate of his modern epic, Ulysses. Why does that matter? Because, in my view, Joyce did something deeply influential when he published that novel: he asserted that an ordinary person's story is a worthy subject of epic literature.

A bit more on that in a moment. First, a digression about banned books.

If you're reading this post within a couple days of its publication date, you are living Banned Books Week, a "national celebration of the freedom to read" according to one of its sponsors, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. In 2010, Banned Books Week is Sept 25-Oct 2. The ABFFE site informs us that
"The American Library Association, the Association of American Publishers, the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Association of College Stores also sponsor the event. Banned Books Week is also endorsed by the Center for the Book of the Library of Congress."

To honor Banned Books Week, blogger/author Tahereh Mafi and "a cranky, underpaid, whiskey-swilling, snack-deprived assistant to a Very Important New York Literary Agent" who blogs as The Rejectionist are co-sponsoring a review-your-favorite-banned-book today (Thursday, Sept 30, 2010). And that's why, after dithering since Nathan posed his question in late March, I'm proposing why Homer's Odyssey is the most important book ever in terms of Joyce's Ulysses.

In a Wikipedian nutshell, here's the publication and censorship history of Joyce's novel:
"Written over a seven-year period from 1914 to 1921, the novel was serialised in the American journal The Little Review from 1918 until the publication of the Nausicaä episode led to a prosecution for obscenity. In 1919, sections of the novel also appeared in the London literary journal The Egoist, but the novel itself was banned in the United Kingdom until the 1930s. In 1920 after the US magazine The Little Review serialised a passage of the book dealing with the main character masturbating, a group called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who objected to the book's content, took action to attempt to keep the book out of the United States. At a trial in 1921 the magazine was declared obscene and as a result Ulysses was banned in the United States. In 1933, the publisher Random House arranged to import the French edition and have a copy seized by customs when the ship was unloaded, which it then contested. In United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, U.S. District Judge John M. Woolsey ruled on 6 December 1933 that the book was not pornographic and therefore could not be obscene [...]. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling in 1934."


I don't think it's ambiguous or contested that Joyce's novel is written as an epic. To quote an obscure and unimportant venture into scholarship (a paper I wrote in my senior year of college),
"The title of James Joyce's Ulysses first calls the reader's attention to the possibility of the novel's parallel's to Homer's epic work." Insightful, eh? I went on to cite Aristotle and S.H. Butcher in making a case that this novel conforms to aspects of the classical form, and -- perhaps somewhat more cleverly? -- observed the following:

"[...] we notice -- once we understand that Leopold Bloom is supposed to correspond to Odysseus, Stephen to Telemachus, and Molly to Penelope -- the tremendous gulf between the Homeric and Joycean portrayal of these heroes. Bloom has no goddess Athena guiding and inspiring him, though he does display some interest (as well as a degree of incompetence) in scientific reasoning. Stephen accomplishes no heroic reunion with either his own father, Simon, or with Bloom as a father-figure, although he establishes a tenuous link with the latter in the garden scene in 'Ithaka.' Molly, Joyce's Penelope, accomplishes on this Bloomsday an adulterous tryst with Blazes Boylan. If we can find heroism in any of these characters [...] it is clear that it won't be the same kind of heroism that Homer sang of his Greek heroes."

I'll spare you the rest of my five thousand word assault on the fields of academe. But I think the core of the analysis stands. Joyce's Blooms -- both Leopold and Molly -- are heroes in a modern, urban, individual, interior, and psychological way. They apprehend the world as it is; whereas Joyce's contrasting characters -- notably Stephen and Gerty -- see through abstracted, literary, idealized lenses that are ultimately self-defeating. Heroism in Ulysses is cast as ability and determination to confront everyday problems and achieve real, if modest, resolution. The Joycean hero is far from perfect. Unlike Homer's Odysseus or Milton's Christ, Leopold has no infallible protector. He nonetheless achieves triumphs that the author marks as significant (if only by including them as the watershed achievements of his novel's principal characters).

Are Joyce's the first ordinary characters portrayed in fiction? Or portrayed heroically? Hardly. Consider Chaucer's Wife of Bath, Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Kate Chopin's Edna Pontellier, Herman Melville's Billy Budd. The ordinary, the ordinary & admirable, and the ordinary & heroic have been fiction's stock in trade for a long while. What Joyce did differently, I think, was to cast ordinary characters in classical form.

And what did this marriage of 'low' and 'high' influence? Well, everything, more or less.

Let's look, for example, at the Nobel Prize for Literature in the decades following Joyce's publication of Ulysses.

  • In 1930 the prize was awarded to Sinclair Lewis, who wrote at epic pitch about the meat packing industry. He published The Jungle before Joyce even began to write Ulysses, and portrayed working class characters engaged in a tumultuous struggle for equity and justice; but it was a post-Ulysses world in which he was awarded the Nobel Prize.
  • There were four years during WWII when the prize for literature was not awarded; William Faulkner won it in 1949. Faulkner was honored for work published at roughly the same time as Joyce's, portraying slaves and their descendants, agrarian southerners, and working class women and men in Mississippi, focusing on their interior responses to ordinary life.
  • In 1954 Ernest Hemingway took home the prize. His tales of taciturn men confronting themselves, wilderness, and war cast ordinary people in epic landscapes or movements of history.
  • John Steinbeck won the Nobel for literature in 1962. His portrayal, in The Grapes of Wrath, of a farm family driven from their land to a hard and hostile California is an archetypal example of movement in literature toward showing ordinary people engaged in epic struggle.
  • Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn won the prize in 1970 for his portrayals of ordinary people trapped in Stalin's gulag, a prison system of epic scale and devastating consequence for the Soviet Union and the world.
  • In the 1980s ... I don't think I've read enough of the authors who won the prize in these years to say much here. Help me out in the comments, anyone?
  • Toni Morrison and José Saramago won the Nobel Prizes for Literature in 1993 and 1998, respectively, for work that casts ordinary African-Americans and Portugese, respectively, in their peoples' national sagas.
  • In the 'oughts, I have a hard time picking between J.M. Coetzee, Orhan Pamuk, and Doris Lessing (2003, 2006, and 2007, respectively): each of these authors tells stories of national or international moment in the voices of women and men who might pass unremarked except for their rendering by masters of language and psychological insight.

By 'influenced everything,' of course, I don't just mean literature worthy of a Nobel Prize. I mean from better to worst.

Have you looked, for example, at the movie listings recently? Has Scott Pilgrim vs. The World been playing in a multiplex near you? Did you notice its sub-title: "An epic of epic epicness"?

I rest my case.

Thanks once again to nikkorsnapper for the photo of Joyce's Ulysses.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer: a saga

New York City's Neue Galerie is on the corner of 86th Street and Fifth Avenue, a few blocks north of the Met and a few blocks south of the Guggenheim. They don't call it Museum Mile for nothing.

Neue Galerie focuses on German and Austrian art and design from the early 20th century, including the paintings of Gustav Klimt, one of which is the anchor of today's post. When I visited for the first time a couple of weeks ago, all but two of the small institution's rooms were closed for installation of a new exhibition. They were two very fine rooms.

Klimt's 1907 portrait Adele Bloch-Bauer I dominates the east wall of the room at the top of the Neue Galerie's stairs. I knew it from reproductions, and grouped it in my mental map of the arts as a giddy celebration of turn-of-the-century wealth (the turn into the 20th century, that is). I don't know a lot about the Vienna Secession movement, of which Klimt was a founding member. I appreciate decorative art from the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -- I could spend mornings without end at Vienna's Café Central and never complain -- but I never made a study of it.

Once in the same room with Klimt's portrait, though, I stopped and stared for a long and fascinated while. The work is flat-out beautiful, neither giddy nor gaudy. Its masses of not-quite-regular ornament -- squares, triangles, iconic eyes, spirals -- draw the viewer into the painting's strangely-flattened planes and elements: Bloch-Bauer's dress, her chair, the room in which she sits, the head that appears, oddly, to be cut out from another work and pasted into the portrait. The canvas compels attention.

So does its history.

Adele Bloch-Bauer was the only subject Klimt painted twice (the second portrait is dated 1912). Her husband, Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, was a wealthy industrialist who supported Klimt and collected his work. In her will, Adele Bloch-Bauer asked her husband to leave the Klimt paintings they had collected to the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere in Vienna, which currently holds the artist's well known canvas The Kiss, among others. One of the paintings collected by the Bloch-Bauers is the portrait that now hangs in Neue Galerie.

Adele died in 1925. When the Nazi Anschluss overran Austria in 1938 Ferdinand fled with his life -- but not his art collection. His property, including the paintings, was confiscated by the Nazis, and remained in the hands of the Austrian state until quite recently. Ferdinand's will designated nieces and nephews as his heirs; he died in 1945.

"Until quite recently" is code for a widely-reported blockbuster legal case between one of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's nieces and heirs, Maria Altmann, and the Republic of Austria. Briefly, the case considered whether Adele or Ferdinand was the owner of five Klimt paintings before they were appropriated by Goebbels and company; and, consequently, whose will governed their disposition once the works were recovered from the defeated Nazis.

The case wound through Austrian and U.S. courts -- including the U.S. Supreme Court -- before the parties agreed to arbitration. In a 2006 decision that, as Wikipedia puts it, "came as a great shock to the Austrian public and government," the paintings were judged to have been Ferdinand's property, and therefore Maria Altmann's inheritance, as Ferdinand's will directed. Altmann sold the portrait of her aunt to Ronald Lauder, the cosmetics baron and co-founder of Neue Galerie; the other four paintings recovered through the legal proceedings were sold to private collectors and have not been seen in public since their exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Neue Galerie directly following the paintings' depatriation -- that is, their recovery by Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer's heirs.

"Depatriation." That's a provocative word-choice, no? Provocative enough to serve as a cliff-hanger of sorts?

I'm going to continue writing about Adele Bloch-Bauer I next week, focusing on ideas about culture, time, property rights, and power that Klimt's portrait inspired when I viewed it earlier this month...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Property: thoughts on Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer
The Steins Collect at SF-MOMA
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Art bliss at MOMA

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Watching food terroir go national

I've read about the phenomenon in national newspapers and magazines for years, and I've seen evidence of it on the east coast and in the midwest while traveling for work and pleasure. I get that -- sticking strictly to numbers, on average, across the whole U.S. economy -- it's still a fringe practice. But something about the traction of 'local food' clicked for me earlier this month, while bopping around New York. Something simple, basic, and ubiquitous. What was it?

Every cup of coffee I drank in New York was terrific.

Now, granted, I didn't visit a single one of the 200+ not-terrific Starbucks locations in Manhattan (I caved once we got to JFK, homebound). And, granted, coffee is not local food in the United States, period. But the attention to bean sourcing, roast, grinding-as-needed, brewing-as-ordered, and skilled baristas makes for compelling quality at Gimme Coffee on Mott St. a couple blocks from where we stayed (6 locations in New York State); Think Coffee (4 locations in NYC, all below 14th St.); Grey Dog Coffee (3 locations in NYC); the Doma Café & Gallery (Perry @ 7th Avenue); Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie (86th St @ 5th Ave); Café 2 at MOMA; Veniero's on E. 11th; and ... there must have been another one or three I'm forgetting. Anyway, with apologies for channeling The New Yorker's Patricia Marx just now, the coffee at each and every one of these places was terrific. The least remarkable? Probably Veniero's, maybe they're getting a little tired after 116 years in business. The best? Probably Gimme Coffee, with Doma a close second. We're talking thick, silky rich, redolent of earth and fruit, hella good espresso, hot or over ice.

So, no, coffee's not a local food in this part of the world, but I submit to you: almost every one of the coffee places we visited paid meticulous attention to terroir. Gimme Coffee, for example, on their website, describes twenty or so coffees with attention to origin, whether the beans are shade-grown, whether the producer farms organically, whether distribution is fair-trade certified. And attention to nuances of flavor? Brazil Santa Andre is described as having "orange and caramel notes." Ethiopia Amaro Gayo Washed is "from the only female coffee exporter in Ethiopia, subtle lime and sugared lavender." Guatamala Guaya'b is "a lush coffee with flavors of peach, pineapple, and cherry."

Okay, I know, all you cuppa-joe types out there, your eyes are rolling like Vegas slots. But bear with me for a moment. The point -- whether you believe in coffee that conjures subtle lime and sugared lavender or not -- is that vendors and their customers are paying very careful attention to a food that forty years ago, in the U.S., was more or less universally extruded by the railroad car, using brutally flattening industrial processes.

You could dismiss it as gourmet fetishism practiced by people loaded with more money than they need. But I think there's something different about consciousness of food and place these days. Part of it can be found in coffee shops and cafés like those I visited in New York: the average drink served at these places costs a few bucks. No, it's not as cheap, per calorie, as a government-subsidized Happy Meal. But it ain't Chez Panisse either.

And this brings us to restaurants and farmers' markets.

Now, I live in Berkeley, California. Berkeley is home to Chez Panisse run by the indomitable Alice Waters who is more or less the acknowledged doyenne of contemporary interest in artisanal food. At UC Berkeley (where I work), Michael Pollan is a professor of journalism; Pollan, who has written four books on the relationships of industry to food to people, is another seminal figure in the local or slow food movement (I blogged about his ideas in Broken food chains last month). I volunteer at the middle school where Alice Waters' "Edible Schoolyard" pioneered the development of hands-on curriculum about where food comes from. So in my town there's plenty of visibility for local food, farmers markets, restaurants that identify the farms where ingredients in their dishes are grown or raised, and coffee that's consciously brewed (Peet's and the contemporary craze for boutique coffee was born at the corner of Vine and Walnut, around the corner from Chez Panisse -- Peet's is the mothership that spawned Starbucks).

Slow or local food culture has been taking root all over, not just in Berkeley and not only in movements that originated here. I got one view of this in New York's Union Square a few years ago, when I walked through the farmers' market that convenes there four days a week and found Alice Waters herself parked behind a table signing books. The Union Square market is one of dozens in the five boroughs of New York that originated in midtown in 1976, five years after Waters opened her restaurant at the opposite end of Interstate 80. I visited the farmers' market in Union Square earlier this month too. No book signings, but the end-of-summer bounty was mouth-watering: heirloom tomatoes, fat ears of corn, honey from bees that gather pollen from the city's rooftop gardens (!), mellons, berries, stone fruit, all kinds of herbs and greens, and even early-ripening apples.

And the restaurants we ate in? From Pulino's around the corner from where we stayed to Momofuku at the north end of the East Village, who-grew-what was prominently chalked on boards or printed on menus.

It was no different in Providence, Rhode Island, where I visited on business this year and last. Local 121 is a restaurant mere blocks from the Providence Biltmore where I had meetings in April 2009 and this past June, and, as you'd expect from the name of the place, they're all about locally sourced ingredients ... and even about supporting local artists in selecting tableware and art to hang on the walls.

The National Museum of the American Indian, part of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, features the Mitsitam Café. Here the emphasis is not local to the District of Columbia, but attention to foods that are local to indigenous cultures "throughout the Western Hemisphere, including the Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America and the Great Plains." I had the pleasure of eating there with an old college friend while in DC for yet another meeting.

Let's not pretend. All this flying between coasts for meetings and vacations isn't helping to limit carbon emissions, and traveling thousands of miles for someplace else's local food flies in the face of the core concepts here. But, having flown the miles and burned the fossil fuels, at least some of the news I can report is encouraging.

True, there are leagues to go, and we may not get there. This week's FDA hearings on genetically modified super-salmon, Chinook that have been turned into Goliaths by DNA-twiddling that changes regulation of growth hormone, didn't inspire my confidence: however the AquaBounty hearings develop, it's truly frightening that the behemoth of industrial food is headed in directions like these.

But changes in massive economies and cultures (like ours) have to start somewhere. The fact that knowledge of where food comes from is spidering out from universities and upscale restaurants to middle school classrooms, national museums, farmers' markets everywhere, and coffee shops where the price of satisfaction is a few bucks instead of fifty or a hundred -- all that can't be a bad thing. Knowledge is a critical element of choice. Choice is key to change.

Thanks to My Eye Sees for the flickr-posted photo of New York City Rooftop Honey.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Allusion in fiction

The protagonist of my current novel project, Consequence, nicknames a certain saboteur "Chagall," under circumstances I hope you'll be interested to read about when the book is published. The painter from whom the name is borrowed is a longtime favorite of mine, and I've spent quite a bit of time staring at a digital reproduction of his dreamlike 1913 canvas, Paris par la fenêtre, on the website of the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where the painting has been in residence since Solomon Guggenheim donated it to the museum as part of the institution's initial collection. I have a crude, greyscale print of the digital reproduction taped to a bookshelf near my writing desk at home.

Until a recent edit, the protagonist of my novel had a confused dream in Chapter 4 that only made sense when he realized it was a conflation of the worrisome partnership he is beginning to form with the aforesaid saboteur and the painting Paris par la fenêtre, a work of art he has known since his childhood.

Last week I took the subway up to the Guggenheim on the last day of a show featuring the work of Vasily Kandinsky and Kazimir Malevich. It was a fine foray into abstract painting, and a nice warmup for the many museums I planned to see during my visit to New York (last week I blogged about the following afternoon's visit to MOMA).

After taking in Kandinsky and Malevich, I turned the corner and ran smack into it: Paris par la fenêtre, live and in color.

I spent a long time staring at the painting. Then I walked away for a bit. Then I walked back and stared for a while longer. I hadn't seen the painting live for a good 25 years, and -- honestly? -- I don't remember that mid-80s visit to the Guggenheim very well at all.

The upside-down train beyond the window really got me. It stands out so much more prominently on the painted canvas than in its digital reproductions, or even in the reproductions I've seen printed in art books. The relevance to my fictional saboteur of the juxtaposition of an overturned train and the Eiffel Tower fairly jumped off the wall: an icon of nineteenth century modernity set against an upended engine of nineteenth century industry. The alluring detail in the flowers painted on the back of a chair were also a see-it-live experience; and the vividness of the Janus-faced figure in the corner of the painting (there are several dual or uncertain identities in Consequence), of the Victorian couple floating head-to-head in the air (or are they floating down the Seine?), of the cityscape spreading out from the iconic tower ... it all had my head reeling, neurons firing hard and fast with connections to the manuscript I've been laboring over for years.

The experience has left me eager to rewrite Paris par la fenêtre back into my novel. It won't be hard: I know right where to recover a view of the painting in Chapter 9, and how to punch up its occurrence in the Epilogue.

My eagerness to fold this painting back into my fiction leads me to think about the relationship between a novelist's wellsprings of creative energy and the experiences of those who read the product of that energy. It's not that Marc Chagall's painting was the inspiration for Consequence, or that it has been the sole or even brightest-burning totem of the story as it has taken shape. But it has been a part of a family of cultural work that forms the soil in which my manuscript is growing: literature, art, music, political thought, philosophy, theology ... the stuff that happens when you turn off the TV and stop shopping.

I edited my protagonist's dream out of Chapter 4 not because it wasn't important, but because its inclusion interrupted the flow of the narrative in which it was situated (thanks are due to members of my writing group who insisted I see and correct this problem). It was possible to edit out the dream because, while it may have added a layer of psychological depth to the protagonist's state of mind as the novel's action unfolds, it wasn't key to a reader's experience or understanding of either plot or character. I can, and I believe I will, slip Paris par la fenêtre back into the manuscript as a grace note, as a piece in one of the many puzzles in Consequence, without interrupting the principal narrative's flow.

And so Chagall's painting will occur in my novel as one of those "easter eggs" that have been hidden in artistic work for about as long as there have been artists, details that pass unnoticed by all but close and attentive readers or viewers, that create resonance on a level that, for most, remains unconscious.

I'm sure that some -- but not all -- viewers of Paris par la fenêtre notice and consider the overturned train juxtaposed with La Tour Eiffel reaching for the sky.

I wonder how many readers of Walker Percy's The Moviegoer see implication of a sacramental act in the novel's final paragraphs, as Binx Bolling speaks with his future-wife in her 1951 Plymouth: She has started plucking at her thumb in earnest, tearing away little shreds of flesh. I take her hand and kiss the blood.

How many readers of Joyce's Ulysses consider, in the piss Stephen Daedelus takes at the end of the novel's first chapter -- In long lassoes from the Cock lake the water flowed full, covering greengoldenly lagoons of sand, rising flowing [...] It flows purling, widely flowing, floating foampool, flower unfurling -- an oblique reference to the power of the Celtic goddes Maeve, whose urination dug three great channels "each big enough to take a household" as Thomas Kinsella's rendering of The Táin has it?

I can't imagine how to count the number of readers of J.R.R. Tolkein's Lord of the Rings who fell deeply in love with Middle Earth with little or no formal understanding of or interest in the invented languages that, for the author, lay at the heart of the enterprise: "The invention of languages," Tolkein wrote, "is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse."

To get caught up in the exquisite tension at the end of 1977's Star Wars IV one need not be conscious of the implication of an erect male organ in the form of an X-Wing Fighter, or the egg implicit in the shape of the Empire's "Death Star," or the sexual subtext of 19 year old Luke Skywalker straining to release his proton torpedoes into the impossibly difficult-to-hit exhaust port of the "Death Star" -- and the fabulously orgasmic fireball when he does hit his mark.

Resonance, allusion, symbolism, and subtly included elements of an artist's inspiration -- they work whether or not a reader or viewer is conscious of them.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Art bliss at MOMA

My partner and I just got back from a week in New York, and there are about a half-dozen things I could blog about at length, drawing on the fab time we had there. Some fraction of all that will follow over the next couple of weeks, and some will undoubtedly be left to decay on the cutting room floor.

Some will remember that Matthew is a painter, others that I count museum days as happy days. It will not surprise anybody who remembers both these factoids that we visited a fair few museums while in a city that counts itself among the very richest in art treasures. I was reminded as we tripped through the Museum of Modern Art of a fairy tales read in my youth -- was it a variant of "Ali Baba and the Forty Theives"? something else from A Thousand and One Nights? a tale from Hans Christian Andersen? I can't remember for the life of me ... but:

The gist involved a protagonist who finds a treasure cave whose entrance opens only for a short while, during which he may enter, scoop up some treasure, and exit. If he overstays the time he will be trapped in the cave forever and have nothing. He enters carrying a great sack for the treasure he expects to haul away, and finds a chamber filled with piles of silver coins, which he eagerly stuffs into his sack. Then, with an eye to his hourglass, he enters a further chamber, and finds it piled with gold coins. He dumps the silver, and eagerly fills his sack with gold instead. Lather, rinse, repeat: the next chamber contains emeralds; the next rubies; a further chamber is overflowing with diamonds. By the time he has emptied his sack of rubies to fill it again with diamonds, the last grains of sand are falling from the top of his hourglass. As I remember the story he does get out of the cave -- but only just -- and to escape with his life he must leave his sack of riches behind.

The point of this half-remembered tale, is that as Matthew and I walked from gallery to gallery in MOMA, it felt as if we were entering one room full of exquisite riches only to find another beyond it, just as in the treasure cave of the story.

Here are a few of the most dizzying jewels from the collection, leading with two Matisse paintings from an exhibition I was lucky enough to be seeing again (the first time, as I mentioned in passing this past May, was when I happened to visit the Art Institute of Chicago when Matisse: Radical Invention 1913-1917 was installed at that great institution):

Mattisse, Portrait of Yvonne Landsberg (1914)

Matisse, Goldfish and Palette (1914-15)

And then, a few of many treasures from MOMA's permanent collection:

Picasso, Three Women at the Spring (1921)

Picasso, Boy Leading a Horse (1905-06)

Cezanne, Pines and Rocks (1897)

Modigliani, Anna Zborowska (1917)

Chagall, I and the Village (1911)

I'll spare you the treasures we saw at the Guggenheim, the Frick Collection, the Morgan, the Cloisters, the Met, and the Neue Gallerie ... at least for now. Chances are I'll come around to a couple of canvasses from the Guggenheim and the Neue Gallerie one of these weeks. Stay tuned.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

The Steins Collect at SF-MOMA
Art as long as history, time beyond memory
Gustav Klimt's portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer: a saga
Art bliss at MOMA

Monday, September 13, 2010

Unhappy reading experiences

I love to read. But that doesn't mean every book I pick up is a pleasure. It doesn't even mean that every book I finish is a pleasure.

Henriette Lazaridis Power wrote a guest post on Eric's Pimp My Novel blog last month, on the topic of great first sentences in fiction. She got me thinking about unhappy reading experiences when she cited "a book I never finished and didn’t particularly like. But I’ve never forgotten the start of Gravity’s Rainbow: 'A screaming comes across the sky.'"

I read Thomas Pynchon's WWII epic just out of college, after being introduced to him in a seminar (we read The Crying of Lot 49, a much shorter work). I found it sheer torture. It took me most of that spring to slog through it, and I'm not sure I was better off for the experience. Celine's Journey to the End of the Night was another tough read for me; a friend responded to last month's post, Characters you're not supposed to like, with a reminder about that unhappy tale.

For months now I've had Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives sitting half-read on my bedside bookshelf. When I pick it up I do find the short, obsessive and ironically narcissistic chapters amusing ... but I can't stay hooked for long. Maybe I'd stop short of calling my time with Bolano's characters "unhappy," but I'm finding the novel tedious.

I'm not a person who gives up easily on books I start. Only very rarely do I bail out of a book I've begun. I'm guessing that I'll finish The Savage Detectives one of these months. I got through Pynchon that long-ago spring, but only dared one more of his since (Vineland, which I liked a bit better, against the grain of most of Pynchon's fans). I force-marched myself through Celine's Journey... but have resolutely avoided him since. Years ago I stalled halfway through Thucydides' The Peloponnesian War, but I have in mind coming back around to it. I know readers who will start a book and set it aside without a second thought if it doesn't grab them, but with the exception of browsing in bookstores I find it pretty hard to hit the eject button. I suppose that would make me a terrible agent. Or perhaps becoming an agent or an editor would harden me?

How about you? What books have given you grief? Did you finish them anyway?

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Safeguarding cloud ephemera Part II: keeping your blog alive

Last week I wrote about the vastness of the information universe and how unlikely it is that most, let alone all of it, will last.

To recap from last week: Artist, poet, and longtime friend Leah Korican commented on a recent post with this suggestion:
"Here's something I wondered about that you might write about...the longevity of these blog posts and other internet publishing. In other words is it important that they are preserved? Do you print them out and save them? What is their lifespan? Will they still be around in 10 years or 50? I have printed email and saved it occasionally but wonder if all the digital stuff will vanish."

This week I'll take a look at a smaller problem Leah asked about: the longevity of blog posts.

Getting Practical: Preserving Your Own Blog Posts

So leaving aside the grandiose questions for a moment, let's suppose you post to one or more blogs and don't want to lose what you write. A reasonable and reasonably common desire? Okay, then. There are a few problems to think about and address:

  1. If your current blog platform goes away, how can you migrate your stuff to a new blog platform? I'll write mainly about Blogger and Wordpress in this post.
  2. How can you preserve blog posts in more general formats, to have a reusable record (digital or otherwise) of the work you did creating them?
  3. Who's going to care after you're dead?

Technology folderol aside, if you're blogging you know that the effort and the value in the exercise is in the posts you write, including the research that undergirds your posts; the synthesis, often in the form of hyperlinks, that points to sources of your research; and your brilliantly crafted prose.

That you rely on, say, Goggle's Blogger, or, or TypePad as the venue by which to publish your work is really secondary to the effort you put into blogging. If you have downloaded Wordpress or Movable Type software to run yourself, as part of your own website, these are infrastructural efforts you have taken on in order to publish your blogging work, but are not the work itself.

To protect your blogging investment -- as opposed to your blog publishing investment -- you'll want to be able to easily save the blogs you create in a format that (1) won't disappear; and (2) can survive disruptions your to publishing platform (from platform failure to your change of heart about which you wish to use)

You don't want to lose your hard work, and you want to be able to keep it available on the internet.

1. Migrating between blogging platforms

Whatever platform you use to publish your blog, a key consideration is whether and how you can get your stuff -- the blogs you've researched, written, linked, tagged, illustrated, and decorated -- and upon which your bazillions of faithful readers have extensively commented -- off the original publishing platform and onto another, if you choose to or need to.

I'm going to talk about how this works with Goggle's Blogger or because those are two widely used and popular platforms, and I know more about them than I know about others. The same ideas apply to any other platform, and you'll want to look into ability to export your blogs -- and what you can do with the export files once you've got them on your hot little disk -- no matter what platform you use. Ideally, you'll know something about how this works before you make a decision to invest a lot of blogging time on a platform ... because you're going to have to live with the consequences of your choice. Try before your buy.

The short story for Blogger and Wordpress is this:

  • Either of these platforms permits export of your blogs in a fairly complete way, including the text, links, tags, embedded images, and comments
  • Wordpress software can import a blog exported from Blogger, directly and without special tweaking or processing
  • It's possible to migrate to Blogger from Wordpress, but this isn't as easy as the other way around

To export or import a Blogger blog to/from "Blogger export file" format, follow the instructions on the Blogger help site. The export file is a structured data document in XML format, but that's probably not important to you. The point is that you can take data exported in this format and either (a) create (or re-create) a Blogger blog with it; or (b) create a Wordpress blog with it. (Presumably you can create a Movable Type or TypePad blog from a Blogger export file too, but I haven't tried this so caveat emptor.)

To export your blog from, follow instructions on the Wordpress Export support page. With the export file -- also an XML file in what Wordpress calls "WordPress eXtended RSS or WXR" -- you can create another Wordpress blog, either on or on an installation of Wordpress software that you manage. If you want to migrate your blog content from a Wordpress platform to Blogger, you can try out the WordPress2Blogger web service as explained in this article ... I haven't tried this, so I can't say whether or how well it works. claims to make it simple to import a blog you have created on Blogger, LiveJournal, Movable Type, Typepad, Posterous, Vox, and Yahoo! 360 -- in theory, you "Simply log into your blog dashboard, then go to Tools -> Import, choose your previous platform and follow the instructions presented." I can tell you from personal experience that import to from a Blogger export file is a snap. Works like a charm, just as advertised.

Remember that just because you exported posts from your blog once doesn't mean later blog posts are saved! Export as often as you need to in order to maintain a safe, portable, reasonably current copy of your work. Back up your back up files, storing them someplace safe; or, better yet, store them in several someplaces!

2. Keeping stable copies safe

Moving between blogging platforms may not be enough to satisfy. You might also want to save your work in some usable, accessible, shareable format that's independent of whether or not blogging platforms exist. Maybe you'll want to do something else with your magnificent material next year, or ten or twenty years into the future. Technologies die, as I wrote last week.

There are a number of strategies you can take to preserve your blog's content.

One idea is to create your blogs using an independent tool, saving the created content independent of your blog's publishing platform, and copying it to the platform when you're ready to publish. For example, you could create your blog using a word processing program, or with Google Docs, then do the old copy-paste. If you use a word processing program on your own machine, you know how to save files, and your backups can include digital copies stored on multiple devices or disks and stored in multiple safe places; and/or printed copies, also stored in multiple safe places. More copies and safer places leads to better likelihood that you won't lose your stuff. If you use Google Docs, you can save copies of the cloud-stored files (on Google's servers) to your own disks, DVDs, flash drives, etc., in a variety of formats, such as HTML, OpenOffice, PDF, RTF, Text, or Word. Of these, HTML, text, and RTF are probably the safest (longest lasting, most independent of particular software tools). Plain text doesn't let you keep any formatting.

An ongoing way to export your blog is to e-mail it to yourself. Then you can use the same methods you use to assure that your e-mail is backed up (you do back up your e-mail, right?) to back up your blog's content. Blogger allows you, as the blog owner, to choose a small number of addresses to which each post will be e-mailed as they are published; to do this, go to your blog's Settings | Email & Mobile page and type in the e-mail address(es) to which you want the posts sent (as I write this post, Blogger's help page on this is more-or-less correct, but the illustration is a little bit out of date). enables Blog Subscriptions that permit people (including yourself) to receive e-mail copies of blogs as they are published.

(What if your e-mail itself is "in the cloud" -- i.e., if you use Gmail or Microsoft Live? You might consider setting up a local e-mail client that downloads your remotely-stored e-mail to your local computer. I use Thunderbird myself, which is an open-source e-mail client from the Mozilla Foundation, the folks who make Firefox. You'll have to open/use the client to effect the downloads. Make sure you're downloading full e-mails, and test that it's working as expected by disconnecting your machine from the internet and making sure your mail is still available. You'll want to back up the local e-mail files, of course.)

And there's always paper. Paper has a better track record than digital media for long-term preservation (in large part because we humans invented paper a long time ago, digital media not so much). The downside? It's more tedious to reuse and revise paper copies of your work. You have to scan it into digital format, losing content and/or format in the conversion; or retype from scratch; or -- imagine! -- transcribe it with ancient twentieth-century instruments, like ball point pens. Still, that's easier than resurrecting something you wrote years before from wetware (a.k.a. your natural memory), at least for most of us.

Whatever way you save your blog posts, backup matters. For your digital copies -- whether in blog export format, e-mail, word processing formats, etc. -- be sure you take the same kinds of precautions with the data that you would with any other file(s) you hope to keep beyond the life of your current computer's hardware. Back it up. Save it in a safe place, on a device that you will be able to read into the future. When technology changes, it's your responsibility to move data to a format or device that the new technology can read. If you delay this chore, it can become onerous or impossible, as my experience converting a pile of near-obsolete 5.25" floppy diskettes showed me earlier this year. There are no magical solutions to this problem ... letting a "cloud" provider safeguard your data works until it doesn't; and that nifty floppy / CD / DVD / Zip disk / external hard disk / flash drive will become obsolete in two or five or ten or fifteen years. Bank on it.

3. But ... will my work be immortal?

You can do your best to preserve the things you research, write, and link -- and the comments people make about them -- but that's no guarantee of immortality, or even continued existence for a few human generations. Publishing your work in a format someone else (like a librarian) is likely to archive, and having it widely read is your best bet, because it spreads the task of saving your stuff to a broader set of people who care -- a situation many aspire to, but few achieve.

Even so...

Libraries fail. Unsold books are pulped every day. Boxes saved in the attic might last a few years or fifty or a hundred before whoever has custody of them loses interest or loses track.

With respect to archiving blogs -- as Leah put it, "is it important that they are preserved?" -- I suppose the best way to answer that question is with another: important to whom?

I ended Part I of this series with a nod to George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. How about a little T.S. Eliot today, from the opening of the second of his Four Quartets, "East Coker":
In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

(This post is the second in a two-part series. The first, Safeguarding cloud ephemera Part I: the big picture, was published on 2 September 2010.)

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Breaking technology: Google's Blogger outage
Moving one's life to the cloud
Safeguarding cloud ephemera Part I: the big picture

Monday, September 6, 2010

Take a sad song

Did you check out the viral track of Justin Bieber's U Smile, slowed down 800%, that made the rounds of the intertubes last month?

I was skeptical at first. But ... dang ... it's actually ... beautiful? Beautiful in a melancholy way that struck me as something between whalesong and Sanskrit chants.

A recording I have of Indian music in this vein is Ravi Shankar's Chants of India, produced by the late George Harrison (as in The Beatles). Well, that train of musical thought led me to embed a video of Harrison's song, All Things Must Pass, from the 1970 album of the same title, in a post last week. I heard that track first when a cousin played it for me in his annex bedroom in Long Beach, California. The vinyl was newly minted then, and so was I.

Some months back I asked Are you a lyrics person? and came to the conclusion that I'm one. I'm also a melancholy music person (some would say I'm a melancholy person, period). I was wondering the other day if it had anything to do with how I was introduced to popular music.

That would have been back in 1968, maybe 1969, when a summer camp counselor in the wilds of the Wisconsin Dells had two (count 'em) 45s that he played over and over and over and over and over and over and over again into the summer heat. Just the A sides, he never even flipped them. The songs were a couple years old, but new to me ... at the time my folks were into Up With People and Herb Alpert and Beethoven. One of the 45s was Wild Thing, a Chip Taylor song covered by The Troggs. I felt a wave of incohate joy rise in me every single time I heard the song's opening guitar chords ring out across the dusty clearing between our cabins. I was a tweener, or maybe not even, my generation's equivalent to the kids who go nuts for Justin Bieber when he's not slowed down. I didn't think of Wild Thing as melancholy at the time. Listening to it now? Well, there's definitely a whiff of sad in Reg Presley's vocals.

Other melancholy favorites? There are so many ... Jerry Jeff Walker's Mr. Bojangles, which I came to know via The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's cover, though I sure like Dave Bromberg's too. Steven Stills' Find The Cost of Freedom from Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Pretty much any track from Beck's Sea Change. The Grateful Dead's Black Peter.

The other 45 that summer in the Wisconsin Dells? Light My Fire, from The Doors: "Try now we can only lose / And our love become a funeral pyre." What? That's morbid? D'ya think???

Check out the slowed down Justin Bieber if you missed it. Spooky.

(Thanks to Kemal Yaylali for the photo of Albrecht Dürer's "Melancholia," via Flickr.)

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Safeguarding cloud ephemera Part I: the big picture

Artist, poet, and longtime friend Leah Korican commented on a recent post with this suggestion:
"Here's something I wondered about that you might write about...the longevity of these blog posts and other internet publishing. In other words is it important that they are preserved? Do you print them out and save them? What is their lifespan? Will they still be around in 10 years or 50? I have printed email and saved it occasionally but wonder if all the digital stuff will vanish."

Leah's not the only one wondering, and I haven't written about technology for a while. So today I'll start with thoughts about the much bigger and more intractable problem of preserving stuff published on the internet, in a general sense. Next week I'll offer some advice about preserving blog posts.

The Big Problem

Stuff on the internet can go away for multiple reasons. It could go away, for example, because the physical hardware that stores the data becomes corrupted and cannot be restored. It could go away because the company that stores the data goes out of business, taking data it hosts down with the ship. It could go away because the Internet as we know it goes away.

The physical hardware problem happened with a bang about a year ago, in October 2009. T-Mobile customers who used their Sidekick phones to store things like personal contact information and calendar entries "in the cloud" (on a remote server) received a communication that began,
"Dear valued T-Mobile Sidekick customers..."

The remote data was stored -- can't make this stuff up -- by a Microsoft subsidiary called "Danger." Wheeee!

As reported by on 10 October, the press release informed customers that,
"Regrettably, based on Microsoft/Danger’s latest recovery assessment of their systems, we must now inform you that personal information stored on your device – such as contacts, calendar entries, to-do lists or photos – that is no longer on your Sidekick almost certainly has been lost as a result of a server failure at Microsoft/Danger. That said, our teams continue to work around-the-clock in hopes of discovering some way to recover this information."

The good news, sort of, is that some days later those bleary-eyed teams managed a partial save. Again, via Mashable:
"We are pleased to report that we have recovered most, if not all, customer data for those Sidekick customers whose data was affected by the recent outage. We plan to begin restoring users’ personal data as soon as possible..."

A similar tale involved the loss of some 45% of user data by backup (yes!) service, The Linkup, in 2008. The Linkup subsequently went out of business. Wouldn't you?

And that third, apocalyptic option? About the Internet as we know it going away? Well ... when was the last time you tried to play a Betamax video tape? Anybody out there keeping important data on eight-inch floppy disks formatted for use with computers running CP/M? Are you still holding unused Instamatic film cartridges in a box stored in your attic?

Technologies die.

Some Big Solutions

There are efforts underway to archive the internet.

One of the best known is, brainchild of Brewster Kahle, and described by Stewart Brand of The Long Now Foundation, as
"the beginning of a cure - the beginning of complete, detailed, accessible, searchable memory for society, and not just scholars this time, but everyone."
The U.S. Library of Congress has a project -- called the National Digital Library Program -- that is
"assembling a digital library of reproductions of primary source materials to support the study of the history and culture of the United States"
The LoC's Digital Preservation project has a mission
"to develop a national strategy to collect, preserve and make available significant digital content, especially information that is created in digital form only, for current and future generations."

In other parts of the world, similar efforts are underway. In Europe, for example, Europeana is set to launch later this year "with links to over 10 million digital objects."

But. Let's get some perspective. In 2005, Google CEO Eric Schmidt cited a study guesstimating that the world's data can be quantified as about 5 million terabytes (a terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes; a gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes, a megabyte is 1,000,000 bytes -- and in ASCII encoding it takes one byte to represent a single letter or digit in computer storage). Schmidt estimated in the same talk that about 170 terabytes were indexable and searchable on-line. If he had his numbers right, that's .... wait for it .... about 0.004% of extant data at the time. A 2005 study estimated that the public, indexable web (the part Google can conceivably index) is 11.5 billion pages, and that large scale search engines cover no more than 40-70% of those pages.

My vote? Nobody is going to archive the whole sprawling, morphing internet, ever. And if they do? It'll only be a fraction of human culture.

But that's not exactly what Leah asked. Leah "wonder[ed] if all the digital stuff will vanish." I believe that most of it will.

All of it? Well, sure. Eventually.

But sticking to the less absolute, consider Babylon, Athens, Alexandria, Rome. Does anybody really think that the wealth of cultural material preserved from ancient Greece represents more than a small fraction of what that great civilization produced?

How best to preserve human knowledge? In Rock, Paper, Digital Preservation I suggested that humans have the longest demonstrated success with cave painting and clay tablets. A colleague with more experience working with cuneiform scholars than I have pointed out that there are a lot of clay tablets that have been found and cataloged, but that nobody knows how to read.

Human knowledge goes away, and there's little reason to believe that the internet changes longstanding rules. Yes, it's a heck of a lot easier and more economical to store digitized words and images and sound than it was thirty or fifty years ago. But how much more are we producing? There's lots of anecdotal estimates, but I'm not sure anybody knows.

That same colleague -- the one who pointed out that much cuneiform remains inscrutable to we of the 21st century -- wisecracked the other day that twenty percent of knowledge production these days is tweets about Lindsay Lohan. Okay, he was making that number up. Still ... maybe the decay of some data is a good thing?

Worth considering.

(This post is the first in a two-part series. The second, Safeguarding cloud ephemera Part II: keeping your blog alive, appears as a post of 9 September 2010.)

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Breaking technology: Google's Blogger outage
Moving one's life to the cloud
Safeguarding cloud ephemera Part II: keeping your blog alive