Due Care and Attention

This birthday cake is literally as big as a house!

Assuming that Heston Blumenthal were not involved in the baking, the cake is almost certainly of standard proportions. It’s an oft-lamented and well-noted abuse of language, the use of literally when figuratively were the correct choice of word, thought it’s worth noting that the noting of such has apparently done little good. I confess to feeling annoyance too, but I do my best to remember that I probably also transgress other rules of grammar and meaning, offences of which I remain ignorant. Matthew (the safety conscious) 7:3.

The example I gave above, no harm done, but imagine if our imaginary speaker had said, “I’m literally going to kill you!” We may perhaps assume from the context of the speaker themselves that they don’t mean it literally, but then we also shouldn’t prejudge their character, so perhaps we should assume that they mean it after all. If so, our actions should be appropriate to the situation. Whatever their subsequent denials, the semantic cat is out of the bag and he won’t go back in without a fight. Get the antiseptic at the ready.

It is held that ignorantia juris non excusat, that is, ignorance of the law does not excuse. My question is, if ignorance of the law is no defence, then is ignorance of language no defence either? If you were to utter the threat above, should you be arrested for making credible threats of violence? Or perhaps we could institute some lesser offence – talking without due care and attention?

The Self-Destructing Book – Part Two

In last week’s blog post I considered how a self-destructing book might alter the approach we would take to read it. This week I continue on the theme, taking that cautionary tale into the realm of possible nightmare…

Imagine that your self-destructing book now disappeared word-by-word, line-by-line, sentence-by-sentence. Read too slowly and the words would disappear before you even had chance to look at them. It’s a booby-trapped book – as soon as you open the front cover the timer begins to tick, and won’t stop until it has devoured all of the words.

Presented with such a gift would you start at the beginning and try to read fast enough to stay ahead of the wavefront of disappearing ink? All done in the hope that you were not reading so quickly that you weren’t actually reading at all but merely glancing over the page with deadened eyes. Or would you start further in, sacrificing the front portion of the book in the name of the latter pages? That way all the better to absorb the words that you did manage to read. Either way you lose.

There is an app, Write Or Die, aimed at encouraging writers to overcome the hesitancy of perfectionism and creative block, to “just write”,  by gradually deleting their words if they type too slowly. Perhaps it’s time there was an equivalent for the reader? Previously beyond technical reach, the app as literature opens up these new possibilities for the form and allow us to examine our relationship with a text.

Imagine now the next step in the evolution of this self-deleting book: we join it not at a clearly defined beginning, but catch it at wherever it happens to be in the story. We don’t know how much we have missed, we don’t know how much is to come. Would you want to read a book like this? In some sense this book would be the epitome, the very embodiment, of realist fiction. Life happens and once the moment is passed, all we have is our unreliable memory of it. Moreover, as we soon learn as children, life is happening continuously, whether our eyes are open or not. The ephemerality of life and text become one. In such circumstances the oral tradition might once again become preferable.

Assuming that you did decide to enter into this mirrored reality, what if it was the most enjoyable and interesting that you had ever read? So captivating that the thought of having to stop is unbearable. You’d have to eat, sleep etc. at some point though, and while you were gone, the words would continue to appear and disappear, and you’d never know what they said. Worse, the subsequent material might no longer make sense and you might no longer enjoy reading it. That great pleasure of your life would have vanished. And so perhaps you’d try to keep reading and reading and reading until your met your demise.

The final situation I’ve described seems to me to be analogous to “The Entertainment”, the fatally addictive film in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. A film which, by the way, claims more than a few victims in that novel. If a book like this existed – one both potentially unending and maximally entertaining – would you choose to read it? Would you dare take that risk? Or would the risk lie in not reading it?

The Self-Destructing Book – Part One

Your mission, should you choose to accept it… As always, should you or any member of your I.M. Force be caught or killed, the Secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck, Jim.

Fortunately, most objects are much less prone to self-combustion than the tapes and discs handed out to members of secret spy teams. Imagine though, for a minute, if our books did behave like that. What would it do to the way you approached the text? First though, the acknowledgement that paper books already are self-destructing – the paper will yellow and then crumble and the ink will fade under daylight – but the processes by which this happens move so slowly that, outside of history departments at universities, no one really gives it a thought. However, if the rate of destruction were to be increased by several orders of magnitudes, from centuries to days or even hours, such that the destruction is likely to happen whilst we are still reading, then we might not be so blasé.

The first thing you notice is a pleasant warmth in your hands, something to counter the artificially-chilled room, followed closely by the delicate smell of smoke, the source of which your repeated sniffing is unable to discern. You look down and see the energy manifest as the visible. You drop the book to the ground and stamp on it, but tenderly, trying to quell the burgeoning flames, at the same time looking for a glass of water, anything wet, to quench the fire. But it’s too late, the book is far more burnt than not, and you give up. The words are no longer yours to read, its wisdom, poetry and pleasures taken away from you forever and you must walk away and try your luck elsewhere.

Suppose that this spontaneous combustion were not the product of TV spy-craft or the overactive imaginations of internet conspiracy theorists, but a well-documented risk associated with all books. Trojan books that are the logical conclusion of those destroyed in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. What would it do to your pace of reading or your approach to the text if you knew that the next time you returned to the book it might no longer exist?

Would the book be more valuable due to its potential scarcity or less so as a now unreliable storage method for information? Once you’d acquired the book would you try to read it deeply to maximise your enjoyment and insight from those sentences that you had read, or would you read it quickly hoping to find the most important bits of the book before they disappeared in flames? Would you take notes as you read or try to copy each page wholesale? Or perhaps you’d decide to abandon the book as a format and occupy your time with something entirely different?

Now, I confess, this is all merely a hypothetical danger, no one is going to make and sell a book that could scar the reader or burn down their house. The publishers’ legal departments would see to that. The firemen of our society are not those of Bradbury’s fictional world. We’re safe after all, sorry to have alarmed you.

Ebooks, on the hand, burn with a cold flame: delete the file and smother the memory chip with layer upon layer of random binary digits, the original document now rendered truly irretrievable. As it happens, the terms of service of ebooks bought via Amazon or Apple, mean that the book can indeed vanish in that manner, as these cases here and here, rare though they may be, confirm.

So I’ll ask again, how would this change the way you view your books?

Mr & Mrs Smmc

Nowadays, particularly living in a large city, it’s hard to imagine a time when one’s profession was a unique enough identifier to be the source of a surname. Cooper – your maker of barrels and other wooden vessels, not to mention his assistant Hooper. Fletcher – arrow-maker and medieval arms dealer. Butcher – your go-to guy for the slicing and dicing of tasty, dead animals. Smith – the basher and shaper of heated metal. All reasonable and logical enough, though I think the Kings were probably getting a bit ahead of themselves.

Even though the English language as a whole is ever-changing – new words and grammar brought in and others dispensed with by the language’s capricious users – surnames are staunch hold-outs from the past. Perhaps that’s a reason to treasure them, they provide a link to our history, which the popularity of genealogy-as-hobby surely shows is something we value. However, let’s suppose we wanted to refresh this aspect of the language too and bring it into line with modern circumstances.

One option is to do as they did before and base them on current job areas. Consultant. Actuary. Programmer. The problem is that maybe there are now too few job areas to usefully name everyone. So, we could be more specific, for example, social media marketing consultant or the infamous and barely-fictional self-facilitating media node. For those reluctant to completely rid ourselves of the historical connection, as a compromise position we could artificially age these words with some retro spelling: actuary, now actuaerie.

This process of going from an occupation to a personal identifier is one of the principal functions of language – the naming of things. Perhaps now is the time for names, or our naming of things, to give something back to language? Some of these names, in their multi-word form could get long-winded and tedious, so let’s abbreviate. Social Media Marketing Consultant: SMMC. Primary school teacher: PST. Self-facilitating media node: SFMN. Ignoring capitalisation convention in the name of innovation we arrive at Mr Smmc, Miss Pst, and Mrs Sfmn. Hard to pronounce, agreed, but they’re new words, a contribution to the language and as Wittgenstein said:

A new word is like a fresh seed sown on the ground of the discussion.

They might look like nothing now, but from them could sprout fresh, new argument.

Dear Reader

Dear Reader,
It’s commonly said, more or less, and attributed to many (in more than one language), that “if I’d had more time I would have written a shorter letter”, and this could be true here too. So too the reverse, it could become a thesis. I have form. Though it would be a brave student indeed who began his dissertation so cheekily with the words “Dear Examiner, I hope this thesis finds you well.” Not to be outdone nor forget my manners, dear reader, I hope this letter (please, play along) finds you well.

The letter is truly a stalwart, not just of literature, but of life – both of our individual and collective lives. Dear John letters. Letters sent home from soldiers in the trenches. Letters that constitute the epistolary novel. The collected letters of the famous writer or artist. Clearly even the highbrow of society engage in the voyeuristic eavesdropping of others’ lives.

And now a rejuvenation of the form is underway at The Letters Page, a new literary journal run by the good people of the School of English at the University of Nottingham. The past issues are available free to download from the website here and they’re well worth a read. To return to the beginning, but altered for the experience, in the first letter of Issue One the author declares that regrettably he has no time to write a letter. I sincerely hope that you are never forced to write the same.

Until we meet again,
The Author

Permission To Write

As we now move through the penumbra cast by the 1st January – that collective witching hour that grips people and allows them to slip into a deeper self-delusion than usual – I thought it time to write about New Year’s Resolutions before the disillusionment currently circling them engulfs them entirely and this whole blog post is rendered sterile before it’s even uploaded. Which would say it all in both a very real and meta way.

But it’s not too late, read on and you’ll see that I believe there are reasons to be cheerful yet! Is it your New Year’s resolution to try a new creative pursuit? Perhaps it’s painting or sculpture, or learning a musical instrument or new language? Or maybe even something sporty, such as a martial art or dancing.

Just over three years ago I had the urge to do some creative writing. I had ideas and the inkling that some of them were valuable, but no real sense of what to do with them or that I should even try. Instead, it seemed almost that I should just leave them until they gradually faded from memory. But why? There was no real barrier to entry; I knew how to write English, and I had pen, paper, and laptop. Still I did nothing.

As with writing, most of the creative pursuits I mentioned earlier can be done by oneself, and be self-taught at that. Buy a sketchbook and pencils; start drawing. But have you?

Perhaps like I did three years ago, you’re thinking that it’s a waste of time? That sitting down to write or draw, and to do so badly (because it will be, at first), is self-indulgent, an unjustifiable waste of your time and energy, and plain discouraging.

But you’re reading this blog now, so what changed my mind? What made me start to write after all?

The answer is simple: I enrolled on an evening-course for creative writing, which I attended for one year altogether. Quite apart from anything about the craft of writing that I have may have learnt on the course, the key point is that it gave me time and space in which to write, both in the classroom and as homework. In the classroom one has no choice, and at home, well, the fact that it was homework allowed me to trick myself into thinking it was mandatory. Any justification for sitting down to write for a couple of hours a week was now prêt-à-porter: I’m not wasting time, I’m doing my homework like a good boy should.

In short, the course gave me permission to write. And that was all I needed.

Whether it’s writing or any other creative enterprise I believe that booking a class or a series of lessons will give you the space, motivation and permission to get through those beginning, inevitably-difficult stages. After which you’ll feel capable of carrying on by yourself.

If you think this might apply to you, go do it, whatever it is and, if you like, please do share your creative plans for 2014 below! Let me know how you get on.

“A Half-Forgotten Book of Erotic Memoirs”

What would be a shame is if this erudite and hilarious sketch by Fry and Laurie were to become half, or worse, fully-forgotten. Not just a parody of a certain kind of intellectual television show, it contains a wonderful monologue that is both about, and itself embodies, the sheer delight of language. “A Half-Forgotten Book of Erotic Memoirs” is one such treasure contained therein. I won’t spoil anymore of them, but merely insist that you watch for yourselves.

Finally, thanks to everyone for reading my blog over the past year. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

Gutenberg 3D

Not the title of a Hollywood blockbuster about the life and times of Johannes Gutenberg, chock full of CGI special effects that bring to lurid life his system of moveable type, but rather a reference to Chang-rae Lee’s latest novel, On Such a Full Sea, that will come with a limited edition 3D-printed cover.

On Such a Full Sea

So is this perhaps the first signs of a revival of interest in the printed book as an object to be desired and cherished? Or is it merely the autonomic twitches of a dying form? In the jargon of stock market analysts – did we just watch a dead cat bounce?

This particular piece is certainly well executed, with the interplay of the title on the book and its continuation into 3D text suggesting motion and a dynamic quality to the words. Limited edition status aside, the suggested current price of $90 alone indicates that this is a niche product.

But let’s look ahead slightly to the days, surely not long in coming, when 3D printing and 3D printers in the home, have become, if not ubiquitous, then at least commonplace. This kind of slipcase could be produced much more cheaply and even printed by the end-user by downloading the requisite CAD files from the publisher’s website.

That said, it’s my hunch that the electronic versions of books available for download on Project Gutenberg became a lot more popular with the arrival of e-readers. Even though printers were a feature in most homes and offices, it was never that appealing or convenient to print out novels at home. This idea could fall prey to the same inertia.

On the plus side, even if it doesn’t see widespread adoption, in this long-tail age of the internet it doesn’t need to become a mass-market idea to be successful and enduring. And these 3D slipcases are just the beginning.  Surely there is room for all manner of innovation in the combination of 3D printing and the printed (by whatever means) word.

Player Piano, Player Reader?

Every time Conlon punched a hole, the world got more interesting.

So said Robert Willey of the 20th-century composer Conlon Nancarrow, and what a beautiful thing that is to say of an artist. Would that someone might say the same of us and our work.

Nancarrow, an American composer, spent much of his life in self-imposed exile in Mexico due to his far-left political beliefs, and gained renown – in the world of classical music at least – for his innovative use of player pianos. These are the pianos that “play themselves”, with the music fed in on rolls of paper that’s pock-marked with encoded musical notation. For a surprisingly funky example that provides context for the rest of the article, I highly recommend that you listen to the following one of his compositions:

As you will have just heard, Nancarrow exploits the possibilities afforded by the player piano to produce fiendishly complex rhythms and staggering polyphony, to an extent which would lead to broken digits and mental breakdown if attempted by a living pianist.

But that’s just the beginning, what I’m really interested in is the following question: is there an analogue, or something close to it, in literature for the music and compositional technique of Conlon Nancarrow?

To begin to answer that, it’s necessary to understand what it is that his approach to composition and performance allows, and it seems to me that, aside from highly music specific aspects, there are two main effects.

  1. It removes the possibility of interpretation by the performer; the composer’s word is now final.
  2. It allows the music to possess a complexity of sound that would otherwise be difficult, or impossible, to obtain through normal means.

These things taken together, along with his rhythmic innovations, give us a new kind of music. How might we do something similar for literature?

For music, the performer and listener are separate roles, but for literature, the reader is working overtime in two jobs. When they bring the text to life beyond what’s stated on the page they are both performing and listening, more or less simultaneously.

Therefore, tackling point one, one possible analogue is to have it such that every single thing in the sentence, every symbol, reference and allusion is explained as fully as possible, in an attempt (futile, but still) to remove the possibility of any incorrect interpretation on the part of the reader.

Another is to remove any emotion and interpretation by producing a speech-synthesised recording of the text. But this kind of electronic reproduction allows for further innovation and refers to point two – in a similar way to Nancarrow, we could use this synthesised speech to overlay multiple strands of speech and narration, which no longer necessarily obey the rules of etiquette, and now refuse to wait for one to finish before entering with their own contribution. Cacophony it could be, also confusing, nauseating or breathtaking. Finally, we could deploy a combination of these two effects: complex multi-layered speech and narration, accompanied by the exhaustive authorial exposition.

It’s likely, almost certain in fact, that some of these suggestions will sound horrific or merely redundant, but then to an ear accustomed to more traditional modes of music, Nancarrow’s can feel claustrophobic and bewildering at first, but there’s no doubting its place in the canon. Equally there is surely space for these other methods of writing and storytelling.

In this post, I’ve only begun to suggest and hint at possibilities, but the judgement of their success can only be made by recourse to some concrete examples. To that end, in the next couple of weeks I’ll be uploading a few of my attempts to capture something of Nancarrow’s music in the “written” form. I welcome your feedback and hope that we can have a fascinating debate on the topic.

Perfect Pitch

There’s a tragic symmetry to the receptions that greet both ends of a housing project – fêted inauguration, fated implosion. The violent end becomes a spectator sport suffused with blood-lust, a way of forgetting the collective embarrassment. Anything goes in a crowd.

Hope was there at the beginning, as too were financial constraints, the convenience of easy solutions and relief of an imminent end – all cast aside by a willingness to believe, or self-deceive. Then that hope became Hype, and the belief lost all sense of self and together they spawned hubris.

High-concept sketches nonchalantly scrawled in thick, black crayon were the kindling, and when elaborated in structurally-benign balsa wood models the metaphorical became literal. Each artwork came wrapped in seductive writing that spun a carefully-calibrated narrative – a soothing emollient to smooth over the rough spots of groupthought.

Others demand more, and are given it. The full graphical arsenal is deployed – artists’ impressions of gleaming buildings, sweeping pathways and impeccable grass. Perhaps followed by CGI visualisations that take the viewer on an effortless stroll through the estate, a beatific vision of the life they could lead. On day one the idyll might exist. But for how long will it remain? The odds are not favourable. What is more, there is non-virtual footage that insists on proving the point. But that comes later, at the end, and too late, it should be there at the beginning, a counterpoint to the utopian propaganda.

So, let the city-planners see more – the ghost of buildings-future. Let them watch the rough-and-tumble of reality played out over time, and do it virtually, without ever risking a brick. Hand over these pitch-perfect images to a crack team of the clumsy and disinterested, the careless and vindictive, and the demolition man and graffiti artist, then wait.

The first thing to go? The cartoonish weather of a perfect yellow disk on uniform blue – almost perverse to include it for buildings in the UK, even the ugliest place can be bleached to freshness by an intense, summer’s sun. The true test of the building’s character is found in the desolation of a thunderstorm or underneath the chromatic monotony of clouds – variations on a theme of grey – to which the blocks of flats match perfectly to create senses as muted as the palette.

Fast-forward through time, through the daily wear and tear of existence, and opening-day show homes are forgotten. Their once blindingly-white walls are now a dulled and off-putting cream, persistently stained with brown streaks of the rusty rainwater forever dribbling from the porous gutters. Green moss sprouts here and there, adding an organic trim, but one that’s sadly unwelcome. Within the reaches of idle hands – for he’s here too – urban murals have occupied the inviting blank canvas of off-white wall and in turn this erstwhile art has itself been defaced by the encrypted squiggles of tag graffiti.

On the other side of the wall a hooded figure sets his back to the dysfunctional CCTV camera and unleashes a stinking, liquid Slinky down the cracked, concrete steps of the stairwell. Its progress is caught in freeze-frame by the half-hearted fluorescent lights, which seem to be forever on the verge of getting going, but don’t. Come the evening the remaining strands of piss will have frozen and sent an elderly resident tumbling in the darkness, the lights by then given up. Skull split and leaking, his blood will add a welcome touch of colour to the forgettable shade of concrete. The steps it seems, though half-crumbled, remain hard enough to break both bone and brain. They’ll break more than that yet.

In the outdoor gloom, the three healthy children propelling the roundabout at gleeful speeds have been replaced man-for-man by older, more sullen sorts who insist on keeping a stationary, furtive council on the rusting, circular steelwork. Of the three swings adjacent, only one remains operational. One dangles forlornly at half mast, and the last is no longer what it was, its seat long-since propelled through a nearby window. The window, too, is no longer that, but mottled chipboard.

Fast forward now. Show more and scratch. Fast forward. Play. Forward, we, go, backward.

Yellow-hatted men have taken to assaulting the tower blocks with probing drills so as to infiltrate these concrete skeletons with mile upon mile of cable. It must be hooked up, every room, every corridor, every shaft must be connected, the building must be riddled with power. And then the lights go on and it’s a derby. The crowd gasps and cheers even as the dust rushes towards them. Eyes shut, lights out now and everybody home. Brush off the evidence and awake to euphoric hangover, then think.

Clear the rubble and begin again. Eyes open, brew the tea and whistle. A perfect pitch.