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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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Sesame and Lilies by John Ruskin

June 6th, 2008

“…so far as you prefer those rapid and ephemeral writings to slow and enduring writings — books, properly so called. For all books are divisible into two classes, the books of the hour, and the books of all time. Mark this distinction — it is not one of quality only. It is not merely the bad book that does not last, and the good one that does. It is a distinction of species. There are good books for the hour, and good ones for all time; bad books for the hour, and bad ones for all time. I must define the two kinds before I go farther.”

Sesame and Lilies
by John Ruskin

Sesame and Lilies is a collection of lectures by Ruskin that I’ve just added to my to-buy list. I found a promising edition by Yale University Press (ISBN: 9780300092608) that includes a number of essays commenting on various aspects of the text.

Here’s a good general introduction to John Ruskin and here’s the extensive section on him at the Victorian Web.

If you find yourself in the Lake District, you might want to visit Brantwood, the house where he lived for the last 30 years of his life. (Then again, you might not. It’s entirely up to you. I’ve never been, so I can’t vouch for it.) Also in Coniston in Cumbria, is a Ruskin Museum whose website has some information about a startlingly direct method of contraception for sheep — with photos! These are, of course, the famous Lake District sheep known as Herdwicks.

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Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

June 1st, 2008

This is going to be one of those promised short reviews.

All kinds of people recommended and loved this collection of “humorous” autobiographical essays. I find this a little disturbing. I suppose it’s just another example of how out of sync I am with… well, most people.

To me, he came off as quite mean and rather off-putting personality-wise. Like those clever, cruel kids in the schoolyard. The others laughed because they were terrified that if they didn’t they would be the next target. He’s obviously a very sharp fellow, but seems quite proud of the fact that he makes little or no effort.

He appears to be a member of the “ironic” crowd. This largely involves being sarcastic, looking down on everyone and everything and embracing kitsch.

At a recent reading he was recommending a book that told you how to zombie-proof your house. Why anyone would waste two seconds of their life on this is beyond me. It’s not even mildly entertaining. It’s just dumb.

Then there’s his comments about the Louvre:

The last person to ask the author a question inquired whether or not he’d been to the Louvre yet. Sedaris had once written that he wouldn’t go to said art museum because they didn’t allow smoking.

“I’ve been in Paris for eight years and I’ve never been to the Louvre,” Sedaris said. “Now it’s like it’s almost too late to go.”

His logic was that after holding out this long he doesn’t want to give up being the only person living in Paris who hasn’t been to the famous museum. Instead, he prefers things like local art auctions.

“I just like art better when there’s a price tag on it,” he said. “Even if you can’t understand it, you can make sense of it if there’s a price tag.”

If this is humour, I certainly don’t get it. I’ll end with a quotation from this book; for me, it sums it all up.

“…like all my friends, she’s a lousy judge of character…”

Now that’s funny — whether it was intentional or not.

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Regeneration by Pat Barker

May 28th, 2008

(First of a trilogy, it’s followed by The Eye in the Door and Ghost Road .)

I wanted so badly to like this. World War I poets, post-traumatic stress, early psychiatry… how could you go wrong? I read them over Christmas. It was this or Milton, I couldn’t make up my mind. Should have gone with Milton.

The whole trilogy suffers from "historical fiction" disease: very thoroughly researched, but the characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue stiff, the plot stagey. The first book is the best, but that’s not saying much. At least it centers on the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. The second and third books center on the least interesting character who does some not-so-believable things, shows all known symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (look at my research! cries the writer) and who becomes increasingly tiresome to the point that you are hoping he will die in a gruesome fashion. When I reached the end of the third book I was ridiculously happy that I was rid of him.

The awkwardness of the writing is downright painful and the clichés are embarrassingly plentiful. She also seems to take a real relish in the graphic details of the horrors of war. This sort of thing can be extremely effective, of course, but here it just feels gratuitous. As does her obsession with homosexual sex. Again, it feels added on. Why? Maybe in an attempt to make the books more "edgy" and therefore more likely to be considered literary fiction? That’s my cynical guess. If it’s something else, it’s between her and her therapist. Anyhow, it doesn’t add anything to the story.

The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederic Manning I would say the whole experience was pretty forgettable, except that a few months later, rooting about in a second-hand bookshop, I came across a novel entitled The Middle Parts of Fortune . It was written by Frederic Manning, an Australian who fought in the First World War.

As far as I can tell, this is not a widely known book. A limited edition was published privately in 1929, but when it was published for general circulation in 1930 (under the extremely regrettable new title of Her Privates We ), the editors heavily censored and re-worked it to make it "less offensive" to the ever-delicate general public. Amazingly, the novel wasn’t published in its original form until 1977! (I guess by then people stopped passing out and hitting their heads on the furniture at the sight of the word fuck .)

Remember that tiresome character of Pat Barker’s that I mentioned? The one who became the primary character in the final two books of her trilogy? Well, he bears a striking resemblance to the main character in Manning’s book. Very striking. Only in his book, this character is developed and revealed in subtle and interesting ways. There is, of course, graphic violence, but it is an integral part of the story that’s being told. It really is hard to get over the number of similarities. One difference: The Middle Parts of Fortune is well-written and moving. The sad thing is no one talks about it.

P.S. A couple hours later, shuffling the book piles into order, I was feeling a little sheepish about what I wrote here: insinuating that Pat Barker may have nicked characters, scenes, etc. from an obscure novel written by a WWI soldier. What’s the matter with me? I thought. I’m getting way too suspicious, too quick to accuse. What do I know, maybe Barker’s talked all about Frederic Manning, said what an inspiration he was, how much she owed him.

I decided I’d delete my insinuations and just say Manning’s novel was better. Leave it at that. As I came to this conclusion, I was flipping through Barker’s "The Eye in the Door" one last time before I was put it into the "off to the second-hand shop" pile. And that’s when something caught my eye. I’d completely forgotten the name of a secondary character: Charles Manning. A rather masochistic sex partner of Barker’s protagonist.

This is all too much. This is how it must feel to think you’ve seen a UFO. I have no idea what it means. Common name? Coincidence? Very strange hommage? Am I making too big a deal out it? Too much shoddy contemporary fiction may have finally driven me over the edge. I am open to suggestions.

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