There was a morning last week when the smoke and ash from several enormous California wildfires swirled suspended above a layer of fog here in the Bay Area, creating a planetary-scale gel filter. The sun rose, but only a fraction of its light reached the ground, and that fraction was tinted flame orange.
It was basically a day without a day. I was up at six and even then, it seemed too dark; as the hours ticked by, the world stayed locked at twilight. On the sidewalk, anywhere a shadow fell, it was as dark as night. Streetlights stayed lit. Indoors, no useful amount of illumination shone through the windows; they were squares of flat orange.
Cameras struggled to capture the optical effect, iPhones most of all: their too-smart white balance algorithms insisting the world couldn’t possibly look the way it did, correcting it violently, rendering a false dingy gray rather than the real ferric glow.
It was one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen. I’m not glad for the destruction that caused it, but if that smoke was going to rise, I’m glad it rose the way it did—glad to have that day now in my memory and my imagination.
I have two fresh bundles of media to share. First:
In my last newsletter, I offered up an e-book edition of my recent newspaper serial Annabel Scheme and the Adventure of the New Golden Gate, with the proviso:
I’ve set my goal at 1000 patrons, but the number of readers will be much larger. Here’s why: if we reach that goal, I’ll make the web edition of this Annabel Scheme adventure free for everyone to read.
Well, I got my 1000 patrons, so, here’s the story, presented in a new format that is, I hope, light and readable and functional on phones and laptops alike.
I was very happy with how the Sloanstarter unfolded. Crowdfunding campaigns can be powerful mechanisms, but/and they risk falling into a shouty monotony: “Come on, everybody! We can do it! Let’s go! Just a little bit more, now! STRETCH GOAL! Come on, everybody!”
I wanted to run a campaign that had two quick, clean beats:
Thank you for making that possible—and fun!
I am sharing a mysterious collection of songs with the title: Brian, the Angel of History EP.
…the contents of cassette tape acquired in a box of thirty ($5, “take them, please”) which turned out to be uniformly New Age, all except one, a 1987 Windham Hill sampler recorded over and re-labeled by an unknown hand?
…a broadcast captured during a drive across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the car radio tuned to the only frequency offering anything other than static on that stretch of U.S. Route 2, a faint station the driver could never find again, no matter how many times he returned to that road?
…a demo recorded by the would-be crooner Clark Venture (real name: Walter Wojcicki) on April 18, 1958, at Transcontinental Studios in Emeryville, California, but never released, owing to the destruction of the studio (and Walter’s master recordings) by a freak Southern Pacific derailment the next day? (Who builds a recording studio next to the train tracks, anyway?)
…a collection of songs created by me with the help of OpenAI’s Jukebox?
The latter explanation is, for sure, the most plausible. But let’s not ignore the other possibilities.
Maybe you should go listen and form your own opinion.
There is a general lament about our (“our”) inability to converse across political and moral differences—across conflicting cosmologies, even. But these conversations are totally possible. In fact, they’re not particularly difficult. All they require is unshakeable integrity and deep trust 😇
I have that kind of trust in the writer Alan Jacobs. I’ve been reading him for years, so this isn’t a snapshot impression; it’s built from a hundred examples, some of them vanishingly subtle, but all totally consistent. Again and again, I have seen him reject easy tribalisms, political and religious and aesthetic; resist the inviting flow of the moment; decline to dunk on his opponents. Again and again, in venues as official as books and magazines and as personal as blog posts and newsletters, he has written and argued with generosity and creativity and care.
His keel: it is deep.
There’s a sadness to Alan’s writing sometimes. It’s not only the tragic view of a Christian who surveys a fallen world, but the loneliness of the person who actually hews to their beliefs, specific and idiosyncratic, and so finds themself between, or beyond, any of the major alignments that comprise U.S. politics.
It’s the sadness, too, of a participant in a public sphere whose good faith is increasingly overmatched by bullshit; the sailor bailing out a boat that’s filling too fast. The sense of: I am doing my best, have always done my best, and it is, apparently, not enough.
We ought to attend to that. It’s important.
I think of this passage from Calvino’s Invisible Cities, which I learned from Robin Rendle:
…the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.
Alan Jacobs is definitively not inferno, which is maybe a weird thing to say, now that I see it on the screen—but it’s true, and it’s precious.
The best window into Alan’s writing and thinking is probably his email newsletter. This edition was something special; the story of SuAnne Big Crow, as relayed through Ian Frazier and Alan, made me cry.
But the real picture emerges when you follow him from place to place: the newsletter, the blog, the microblog, and, of course, the books.
I mentioned Alan’s new book briefly in my previous newsletter; as of last week, it has been published! I read an advance copy in the spring, which grants me the perspective to tell you that (1) I enjoyed the book then, and (2) several of its ideas have stuck with me in the months since. They’ve become part of my own toolkit as a reader, a thinker, a person in the world.
In fact, Breaking Bread with the Dead was in my mind very recently as I read T. H. White’s The Once and Future King. I should say: when I started, I thought it was a reread, but then I got past the early episodes of The Sword in the Stone and realized: hey, this is all new to me?!
I can report to you now that the book is wonderful, but/and, there are a few slaps of truly gnarly sexism and racism along the way. You’re barrelling through the legend, enjoying a somewhat wacky adventure well-told, when, SMACK, a vile assumption.
For me, these passages were not—could not be—disqualifying, because the heart of the book is so bright and kind. But I couldn’t ignore them, either. So I thought of Breaking Bread with the Dead, the part where Alan invokes Patrocinio Schweickart, who says
you should look for what she calls a “utopian moment”—a moment when something deeply and beautifully human emerges from that swamp of patriarchal ideology. Another phrase she uses for this is the “authentic kernel,” something perhaps hidden deep inside the book that speaks to you, that articulates an experience you can share. From this point on you read in a double fashion. You don’t silence the part of you that sees the problems with the book, its errors, its moral malformations; neither do you silence the part of you that responds so warmly to that “utopian moment.”
I quoted that passage in my previous newsletter, but reading The Once and Future King, I actually put it to work. I encountered those slaps; I felt my relationship with the book stutter; I remembered Patrocinio and Alan’s admonition; and I read, from that point on, in “double fashion.”
The Once and Future King doesn’t just have a utopian moment; it is a utopian moment. It’s wonderful, and we can, in 2020, still experience that wonder. We, as thoughtful readers, can in a sense rescue the book’s innermost heart from its moral malformations.
These links all have something to do with music:
Julianna Barwick has a new album out, titled Healing is a Miracle. It is characteristically gorgeous; if you’re new to her work, prepare yourself for an enveloping wash of sound. I love the looping, lifting melody in this album’s closing track, “Nod.”
Here is some very insightful writing on music and technology: “Modulation & the Chaos-Trans Voice.” The duo called 100 Gecs is a key reference; I have referred you before to their transcendent “Money Machine” and I will now do so again!
Here’s an hour-long mix from Jessy Lanza, winningly presented.
It’s likely you have heard Radiohead’s great song “Idioteque.” (If not: come on!) I had no idea its otherworldly chord progression was a sample; you’ll find it at 0:43 in this recording of a piece “composed in 1973 on an IBM 360/91 mainframe computer.” There’s digging in the crates, and there’s digging in the crates. Wow.
The best and most surprising movie I’ve seen all year is Office, a Chinese-language musical set during the 2008 financial crisis. (Let the full um-whoa-ness of that description sink in.) I started it with no expectations, just curiosity, and what I discovered was totally wonderful and strange. The sets in particular are stunnng: bold and spare, stage-like. I watched the movie on the indie streaming service Mubi, but it has expired there, so you should seek it out on iTunes or wherever else. Office has my highest recommendation.
Two book recommendations for you:
I am a longtime reader of M. John Harrison. Not as long as some—he’s been writing for fifty years. But I found his novel Light in 2004, on the front table at the Barnes & Noble that used to be across from the ballpark in San Francisco, so that’s a solid fraction of my reading life so far. That novel, a kaleidoscopic space opera, is one of the very best of the 21st century so far, and it will (I am confident) remain so through the century’s conclusion. If you haven’t read Light… I just… why haven’t you read Light?!
His newest, The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again, is different: muted and melancholic, haunted and unstable. Oh, and contemporary! It takes place in the England of right now, today. Harrison describes his intentions:
I was after a quiet surface, with constant low-level shifts of tone, register, rhythm and perspective like plays of light. Emotional undercueing. Dialogue that doesn’t say what it means, although what it means is clear enough. Loss of epistemological certainty in the central characters, to be shared fairly with the reader rather than just talked about by the text, in the usual, “Oh my god, we not only don’t understand the world suddenly, we don’t know how to get understanding of it!” as commentary on a sequence of tightly-plotted events.
I also liked this description, which put words to something I’d felt but couldn’t articulate: the novel “concerns an eldritch invasion that happens just out of sight of both the reader and the characters.”
Sara Hendren is an artist, design researcher, writer, and professor who I have long read and admired, and whose book What Can a Body Do? has just been published. Its first line sets it up vividly (which is not always the case, though I think it ought to be): “Every day every body is at odds with the built environment.” This book is about those odds, those “mis-fits,” and the ways designers might open up space for the reality of interdependent life. (This book also has a lot of fun with language—again, this is not always the case!)
Five years ago, Sara gave a talk about her work that remains one of my favorites, ever, on any subject. There’s the kind of talk where you find yourself nodding along, engaged, agreeable; those are fine. There’s another kind of talk where you find yourself tingling, aware of electricity rippling across the surface of your brain; this is that other kind.
(I keep a running list of my book recs to the Society of the Double Dagger over here.)
The classic poem Beowulf begins with the Old English word “hwæt,” which has proven tricky to translate; it’s a call to attention, something like “hark!” or “behold!”
Tolkien chose the musty “Lo!”
Seamus Heaney, in his translation published twenty years ago—the first Beowulf I encountered—brought it up to date, opening with a winning “So!”
Now, Maria Dahvana Headley, in a bracingly contemporary translation, does Heaney one better. Her Beowulf begins with—wait for it—“Bro!”
Beowulf always was a little bro-y, wasn’t it?
I love the way these translations speak to one another; neither Heaney nor Headley’s choices would be as appealing without the knowledge of what came before. Lo/So/Bro: a perfect progression.
I like Louis Pasteur’s expression in this bust by Paul Dubois—a kind of heroic skepticism:
I have long followed the exploits of the wandering retro-technologist duo who call themselves 100 Rabbits. They recently completed a 51-day transit of the Pacific Ocean, sailing from Japan to Canada in a rather small boat, and their logbook makes for gripping reading. It’s legitimately harrowing—there are some close calls—so I don’t unreservedly recommend it to everyone, but if you are up for a real-life adventure, wow. Here it is.
Here’s a sharp, readable survey of the state of chip manufacturing. Its author, Jessie Frazelle, is one of the founders of Oxide Computer Company, just down the street from me, a thrilling throwback: they want to build… and sell… a computer!
I loved this potted history of the LED, and I recommend its home, the newsletter In Abeyance: a “concise publication for people actively curious about the built environment.” (You can subscribe at the bottom of the page.)
Sahil Lavingia’s essay “Reflecting on My Failure to Build a Billion-Dollar Company” is one of the essential documents of 21st-century Silicon Valley. Seriously: save this one for the historians. It will help them understand.
Look at this incredible mosaic, a couple thousand years old, newly restored in southern Turkey:
It’s Medusa, of course. Look at the glint in her eyes!!
I possess Raven Leilani’s novel Luster but haven’t read it yet. It was this single line in a Q&A that sold me:
Without explaining why and without naming other authors or books, can you discuss the various influences on your book?
Raven: The dirty feet in Caravaggio’s paintings, wet spots on the R train, turn-based JRPGs.
This leaping cat—
—made me think of the blurred bicycle in Cartier-Bresson’s famous image:
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