Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Few Guys Talking About Donald Barthelme

Now that I've left Texas, I find myself laughing a little harder at King of the Hill and hankering for Donald Barthelme, that most Houstonian of Houstonians, a little more. introduced Barthelme as their first Author of the Month in what I hope will be a long series.

Here's what they do with their Authors of the Month:  They offer a story (if it's available) by that author.  Then they offer a discussion of that story from some sharp literary critic or other.  They offer two such installments as of now.  One discusses "The Indian Uprising" and the other "Me and Miss Mandible."  I hadn't read the latter one, but it's one of my favorites now.  Bartheleme's got a funny way of writing about schools that shows what silly and powerful institutions they actually are.  The accompanying essays are okay, too, but neither comes close to George Saunders's "The Perfect Gerbil" from his collection of essays The Braindead Megaphone about Barthelme's "The School."  Writes Saunders thusly:

When I was a kid I had one of these Hot Wheels devices designed to look like a little gas station. Inside the gas station were two spinning rubber wheels. One’s little car would weakly approach the gas station, then be sent forth by the spinning rubber wheels to take another lap around the track, or more often, fly out and hit one’s sister in the face.
A story can be thought of as a series of these little gas stations. The main point is to get the reader around the track; that is, to the end of the story. Any other pleasures a story may offer (theme, character, moral uplift) are dependent on this…
So if the writer can put together enough gas stations, of sufficient power, distributed at just the right places around the track, he wins: the reader works his way through the full execution of the pattern, and is ready to receive the end of the story.

Barthelme does just this with "Me and Miss Mandible."  Gas stations galore.

Onward Robots!

Dennis Johnson, over at Melville House, wrote this really good little thing about print and ebooks:

He writes about his feeling that "there is a deep-seated respect in our culture — still — for the importance of the printed book and, no less important, there is an equally deep-seated affection for it. We shouldn’t let the mindless din of a few, loud and nasty as they are, obscure that, nor bully us into failing to champion great technology — old or new."

Too right.  The loudest are so often the wrongest.  And there are some LOUD folks in a lot of discussions about e-readers and print texts, hellbent, it seems, on creating one of those false binaries between Print People and, oh I don't know, Kindle People.  Observe:

Get it?  Kindle People--those only-slightly-smarmy pillars of elegance and casualness--privilege efficiency and simplicity, while Book People--those hard-headed luddites--privilege stupid shit like carrying around stuff in big bags.  Is it any wonder they are meeting in that weird empty white purgatory where the "I'm a Mac/I'm a PC" guys met?  This is apparently the space where people go to identify themselves as this or that technology, or, in the case of those Progressive commercials, to buy car insurance.

Anyhoo, here's where I'm going with this:  Books are technologies with affordances and constraints.  So are e-readers.  Let's be a little quieter about all this.  Gunther Kress wrote this about reading and writing technologies and literacy in the New Media Age:

"My sense of what is needed above all is some stocktaking, some reflection, a drawing of breath, and the search for the beginnings of answers to questions such as: Where are we?  What have we got here?  What remains of the old?  What is common about the making of representations and messages between then and now and in the likely tomorrow?  I think that what we need are new tools for thinking with, new frames in which to place things, in which to see the old and new, and see them both newly."

That was in 2003.  It could've been written last year or 1973 or 1497 or 220 BCE.  It'll probably need to be written again in 3772.  Technological developments tend to make us louder than we need to be.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The Absolute

So the name of this blog comes from a book by the Czech writer Karel Capek:  The Absolute at Large.  I'm on a Capek kick right now.  Just re-read War of the Newts and I'm currently re-reading The Absolute at Large.  Both novels are about mankind trying to exploit technology (is a newt a technology?) with a complete disregard for how technology acts on humans just as much as humans act on technology.  Capek was funny, funny, funny.  I don't laugh out loud at much stuff I read, but Capek's writing cracks me up a hundred years after it was first written.  I'm impressed by the lasting power of his sense of humor, but I'm amazed by his foresight: he invented the term "robot" in his play R.U.R. (which stands for Rossum's Universal Robots); he seems to have foreseen nuclear power with his "Karburator" from The Absolute at Large; War With the Newts shows a very sophisticated understanding of humanity's effect on our planet.

He's written other stuff.  I must read it all.

Here is what he looked like:

Here's something smart he wrote in The Absolute at Large:

"There came into the world an unlimited abundance of everything people need. But people need everything except unlimited abundance."

So, there you have it.  Demystified.  The Absolute.

First blog. First blog post.

Just getting off the ground here.  How's this going to look?  I dunno.  Probably a collection of readings I've read and videos I've watched and songs/radio programs/podcasts I've heard.  Nothing special, I guess, but no crime either.

I closely follow other blogs that do this exact same thing.  I've learned to appreciate the art of filtering and arranging and displaying the world in interesting ways.  And I the punk-rock part of my brain says, "Make yr own art!"  (The punk-rock part of my brain writes "yr" instead of "your."  The rest of my brain can't stand that.)  So, yeah.  Why not?  Let's see what happens.

An appropriate quote, from Donald Barthelme's story "Genius":

"Q: What do you consider the most important tool of genius today?  A: Rubber cement."

Yep.  That sounds about right.