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The Internet

Friday, June 20th, 2008

Have you ever wondered what computers (in general) and the Internet (specifically) are doing to your brain?

I know I have — more and more lately.

The effects on us in general are, of course, innumerable — positive and negative. In this post, would like to mention a couple of the negative effects because these are what I’ve been thinking about recently.

The first — and probably most obvious — thing it’s done is to deal a serious blow to punctuation. What used to be as natural as breathing is now something I have to consciously mull over. I’m not the only one. Why else would a rant on punctuation become a huge bestseller? I doubt that’s happened before.

Well, now that I say that, I can think of a dozen reasons for it selling so well. Including the fact that it’s a fast and somewhat easy way for people to work up some self-righteous indignation and offers a pseudo-intellectual excuse for scoffing at your fellow man and woman. But that’s being cynical. I’ve been known to write to newspapers and magazines for various punctuation and where’s-the-proofreader-type offenses myself. Incredibley, they always take the time to write back. It’s great fun. (No, I’m not an eighty-year-old, retired school teacher… I’ve been doing this sort of thing since I was a teenager.)

(And no, I’m not counting that other huge bestseller Elements of Style because it’s also about, well… style!)

But I digress…

To me, punctuation is as vital to writing as timing is for a comedian, as breathing is for a singer. Punctuation controls exactly those things in a written text. It gives emphasis to certain words or phrases, gives sentences rhythm, shape and style. Punctuation by itself can change meaning, add suspense, make us laugh. It helps us hear the intonations and personality in the voice of the writer.

So when someone sends me an email with no visible effort at punctuation, or I read an comma-free newspaper article, I just want to scream and stick my head in a salad spinner.

Another thing that concerns me is how the Internet affects my reading, thinking and writing. It does, I can feel it and see it. Interestingly, there’s an excellent article in the Atlantic on exactly this subject.

Thankfully, for myself, I find the effects are not permanent; when I break the trance, stand up and walk away, I slowly begin to regain my normal faculties. (It helps if you shake your head in the manner of a water-soaked dog.) But what about society and culture as a whole? What about people who grew up with the Internet? Can the media actually become even shallower? Will this have a detrimental effect on books and writing? Is this already happening? Hard to imagine shallower, more simplified ways of thinking being a good thing for humanity.

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Arabic literature

Monday, April 14th, 2008

Apparently the recent London Book Fair featured Arabic literature. That would have been really interesting to go to.

As compensation, I found an interesting article in the Guardian. They asked a good number of authors and academics about what it’s like to be an Arab or Egyptian author today and what books they would recommend or like to see translated into English.

Here’s an excerpt from the Guardian article:

Adania Shibli
Palestinian writer

I remember a story from four years ago in Ramallah. One night the Israeli army stormed a building in which somebody I knew lived. Everyone was told to get out. After a few hours, the army announced it wanted to blow up the building and gave the inhabitants 20 minutes to go up to their rooms and retrieve what they could. When my friend went up he didn’t know what to take; he had all of his life there, he was totally lost. He finally went to the washing machine, emptied it and went out with the washing, leaving everything else behind to be blown up a few minutes later.

In the same way, I could never say which text to have translated from Arabic into English; if I did, it might be the least important.

I keep thinking about him standing there with his arms full of laundry watching his home being destroyed.

Sadly, I found pretty much none of the mentioned authors available in English, but I did find a few in French. I’m going to try the bookshop at the Institut du Monde Arabe, they should have a good selection.

It’s wonderful to finally be able to read in another language — even if I still need my dictionary. The ones I learned in school and forgot don’t count because I was foolish enough to lose them. So now I’m discovering all kinds of new writers: French, Italian, Spanish, African, and on and on.

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Writers and booze.

Saturday, March 8th, 2008

We all know the clich√© of the alcoholic writer. Lots of painters drank like fish, but for some reason people like to think of drunken writers. It’s romantic somehow. Like tuberculosis. How anyone thinks vomiting and/or coughing up bits of your lung is “romantic” truly escapes me.

But I am a sucker for anecdotes and this little article has a few good ones.

In the early 1980s, Norman Mailer was asked by director Sergio Leone to write a screenplay. Mailer showed his enthusiasm by locking himself in a hotel room for three weeks with a case of whiskey. Leone, says a biographer, recalled hearing Mailer in his room “singing, cursing and shouting for ice cubes.” He did not use the script.

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Against Happiness: In Praise of Melancholy by Eric G. Wilson

Saturday, March 1st, 2008

Unfortunately, I can’t get my hands on a copy of this book. (?!?) For now, I’ll just have to make do with this article that I found in the LA Times. If the article is any indication, it promises to be a very interesting read.

In April of 1819, right around the time that he began to suffer the first symptoms of tuberculosis — the disease that had already killed his mother and his beloved brother, Tom — the poet John Keats sat down and wrote, in a letter to his brother, George, the following question: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul?”

…We need sorrow, constant and robust, to make us human, alive, sensitive to the sweet rhythms of growth and decay, death and life.

There was a magnificent exhibit in Paris a couple of years ago on the theme of melancholy with around 250 works (mostly paintings). Here’s a very good article about it with some excellent historical background.

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