Lit up like a sparkler
The days are getting long; somehow, this is always a surprise.
Below, you’ll find a newsletter packed with recommendations, links, and stray thoughts. As always, my intention is not for you to process everything —
Of course, if it’s me reading a newsletter like this, I open up a merry parade of thirty tabs … but that’s just me.
Here we go!
This is an archived edition of Robin’s newsletter. You can sign up to receive future editions using the form at the bottom of the page.
I’ve linked to Jack Cheng’s newsletter several times in the past, but I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned that Jack and I went to the same high school, just a couple of years apart, or that we’ve followed similar paths —
That’s all to say, I was excited to learn that his new novel is nearly here! In his latest newsletter, Jack talks a bit about the book’s milieu, and coins a compelling new phrase.
Here in my household, we have recently become devoted to Proxy Coffee, specifically their Omen blend, which is billed as a “dark roast”, but … well, I’m not enough of a coffee nerd to really pinpoint this, but it is definitely not the same dark roast that I have learned to avoid in cafes and truck stops. If you have historically been suspicious of dark roasts, or if you live in a household riven between roast preferences, give this one a try. “Omen” is a good name, because it’s truly revelatory.
Don’t worry if you don’t drink coffee … I’ve got you covered.
For years, visits to my friends Dafna and Jesse’s house have concluded with cups of their house blend tea. Sometimes they even send us home with a little jar of it —
Now, that tea is available to everyone. It’s deceptively simple, made from chamomile flowers and sage leaves, all fresh and organic. I’m telling you, though: this is the one. This is the tea.
While you’re visiting the INNA Jam website, don’t miss the strange and seductive super spicy ginger snacks, which Eater recently declared the world’s best snack for ginger lovers.
Jesse is, of course, my Cotton Modules bandmate, the composer and producer responsible for the compelling sound of The Greatest Remaining Hits. It’s all connected!
Here is a post about Cleopatra from Bret C. Devereaux, notable for its disciplined uncertainty. Not just disciplined: passionate! That’s not a feeling generally associated with uncertainty, right? Yet here it’s plain.
Recently, I reread a bit of Stephen Batchelor’s Buddhism Without Beliefs, and I was struck by a version of the same feeling:
[ … ] Yet such an agnostic stance is not based on disinterest. It is founded on a passionate recognition that I do not know. It confronts the enormity of having been born instead of reaching for the consolation of a belief. It strips away, layer by layer, the views that conceal the mystery of being here —
either by affirming it as something or denying it as nothing.
There’s a way in which the modern media environment —
I am trying to be better, when it’s appropriate, at starting and finishing with “I don’t know”. I aim to become a world champion.
Miwa Messer is a longtime bookselling force at Barnes & Noble who, for the past two years, has been the mind and voice behind its Poured Over podcast. Listening to a recent episode, I was struck again by her nearly incandescent enthusiasm.
I have been its beneficiary before: Miwa was a great ally to Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough and, honestly, her support of both books was pivotal. The fact that I have a new book on the way, am sitting here typing this newsletter for you, owes more than a little to her work.
It’s amazing the difference one person can make, standing in the right place, lit up like a sparkler.
Here is another chapter in the love story between graph paper and video games, this one revealing the classic Street Fighter II sprites disassembled and packed like Ikea furniture.
I love the pencil sketches —
This passage is wonderful:
In order to make the best use of the capacity we had, we wrote the ROM’s capacity on a [paper] board, and cut and paste the pixel characters on the board.
If there was space left on the board, then there was open capacity in the ROM. So, from there we started filling in the spaces, like a puzzle.
One thing that happened that’s kinda interesting, we saved making the ending for last, and by the time we got there we were all out of capacity. We were wondering what to do, when we found a board that had gone missing under a desk.
We called it the “miraculous memory”.
Here is Kyle Chayka’s dream of a personal machine, a wistful vision built on a beautiful foundation of aesthetic references.
I replied to Kyle and told him the “personal machine” I would add to his constellation is Penny’s book from Inspector Gadget —
Here is a mini-manifesto that pairs perfectly —
I love following the blog of Hiroko Shimamura, who translated Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough into Japanese for Tokyo Sogensha. In her latest post—read with the aid of Google Translate, what a gift —
It’s a comment that makes me want to tell [the author], “I can feel your thoughts even in Japan!” [ … ] I intend to do everything I can as a translator so that I can continue to publish as many Japanese versions as possible for a long time.
“I can feel your thoughts even in Japan!” Maybe there’s a note of machine translation in that phrase; regardless, it’s beautiful. We all do our part, writers and readers and publishers, but/and there’s nobody more important than the translators.
I enjoyed this celebration by Alexander Wells of the global Englisch of Berlin. What a language! What a world.
The breath of the gods
Here in the haunted 21st century, a random book recommendation gets picked up by Twitter’s algorithm and launches the object of its affection skyward. Last month, Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone’s terrific epistolary sci-fi novel This Is How You Lose the Time War was briefly the best-selling book on Amazon. It also arrived, four years after initial publication, on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
Here is Max’s recollection of the surreal event, which is how I learned about it.
This is a good thing happening to a great book and better people —
It’s interesting to notice how often the digital, so much more than the physical, feels irrational, unknowable, haunted. Flashes from the mountaintop. The breath of the gods.
Here’s a trenchant observation from Caroline Polachek:
Here’s the thing with mentorship generally: The landscape of how people consume music changes drastically every five years. So what advice, really, does one generation have to give to the next? Very little. Discovering yourself is the only thing that can be taught in that way. Because every generation and microgeneration has to rewrite the rules and come up with new ways of navigating and creating meaning —
in a way that previous generations not only can’t advise on but maybe even can’t understand. So we have to stay kind of humble here as well. Like, I don’t think I can actually advertise myself as a mentor. What the fuck would I say, start a band and go on tour for 10 years? You can’t even afford to do that now.
Here is a successful indie video game developer explaining their marketing strategy, built entirely around describing their game to Twitch and YouTube streamers in a way that will entice them to play it on camera.
This feels totally dizzying to me —
The developer explains that their outreach to “traditional” websites was almost totally unsuccessful. Something is happening, with glacial implacability, across media: an all-over collapse in reviewing, particularly of work that’s independent and/or experimental, its creators not already famous. The circuits that once carried new work into the world are going dark.
In their place: the breath of the gods! The algorithms!
Here is Adam Savage at the American Bookbinding Museum! It warms my heart to see him exploring one of San Francisco’s quiet gems. If you visit, you will realize, or remember, that books are machines, and there’s much more to a great printed book than the words on the page.
In another video, Adam learns about an apparatus in the museum’s collection that offers the reminder: most things that get printed aren’t books. Indeed, books are a relatively small and unimportant region of the vast country of print. I suppose you could find this deflating; I think it’s great.
For anyone interested in books and reading on the World Wide Web, it’s worth spending some time with Make Something Wonderful, the new compendium presented by the Steve Jobs Archive.
I say that not because I’m sure it’s an exemplary “web book”, but rather because it’s very clearly trying to be, and the people who produced it are very smart, so it becomes worth asking: in what ways does this succeed? In what ways does it fail?
This project is very close to the state of the art, both technically and aesthetically, which provides a useful opportunity to assess that state.
Here is the story of how the U.S. electricity grid was born, from the excellent Contruction Physics newsletter.
Halting and piecewise
When it comes to the present AI mania, I am deeply ambivalent, in the proper sense of believing many things at the same time.
One thing I believe: these technologies are deeply interesting, intellectually and aesthetically. Poking at an AI language model raises dizzying questions about language itself, about what it both reveals and conceals. I truly hope the philosophers are going wild over this; if college campuses are not dense with new courses this fall, it will be a dereliction of duty, and curiosity.
Another thing I believe: the promises (or warnings) of overnight economic transformation are overblown. After all, we have a clear template, complete with breathtaking successes and frustrating setbacks: autonomous driving. Any walk through the streets of San Francisco now includes an encounter with at least one driverless car, gleaming Stormtrooper-white, sensors spinning, no one at the wheel. It’s astonishing —
Yet this rollout has been halting and piecewise; will continue to be halting and piecewise; because that’s what’s required to fit something new into the real world. Autonomous driving might change the whole fabric of physical space eventually (I … hope it does?) but/and it won’t do it any faster than electricity, as chronicled in the link above.
So it’s like —
Here is a satisfying thread of real places and devices that shine like something out of science fiction.
Here is Alanna Okun writing about the ways in which programming is like crocheting. You know I’m wild for analogies that reconnect computers to their textile roots.
Here is Nick Cave describing a salient scene:
I remember waiting in the darkened venue for [the band] to come on, bummed out about England, listening to some ambient music wafting out of the speakers, when suddenly and without warning The Pop Group strode onto stage and ploughed into the opening song with such indomitable force and such sudden visceral rage that I could barely breathe. It was the most exciting and ferocious concert of my young life —
everything changed at that moment and we, as a fledgling band, knew then what we needed to do.
What an image! Striding, ploughing! What would it mean for a novel to take the stage with that kind of energy?
I discovered Wislawa Szymborska’s poem Conversation with a Stone through a glancing reference in the most recent Tournament of Books:
And I always want from books what Szymborska’s stone called “a sense of taking part”
wrote Olivia Waite … and I thought, hmm, I also like “a sense of taking part” … so I followed the link, and I read the poem, and now this line is, I think, part of me.
The web is good at this!
The art and craft of the blurb
With some regularity, you’ll come across a cynical assessment of book blurbs. Blurbs (the assessment goes) are corrupt and meaningless: nothing but friends doing favors for friends. “Everyone knows this.”
This assessment is wrong. For many years, I have received perhaps one blurb request a month, of which most are sent by editors, a few by authors themselves. Roughly half come from people I know, or people who know people I know; the other half have no preexisting connection.
I consider the requests, in all cases. My first novel benefited from one particular positive blurb, and I believe I will always be “paying that back”.
If I read a book and decide to offer a few words of support —
Here’s my blurb for The Tatami Galaxy, a Japanese novel newly translated:
The team of Tomihiko Morimi and Emily Balistrieri is unbeatable: this novel vibrates with a voice that is sharp and funny, wacky and winning. It’s a perfect slice of contemporary Japanese pop: a tangle of fates, simultaneously cosmic and comic. I loved my voyage through The Tatami Galaxy.
Here’s my blurb for Hilary Zaid’s novel Forget I Told You This, forthcoming in September:
Forget I Told You This sets our high-tech world of phones and apps vibrating against the beauty and history of pen and ink. Twisty and textured, rich and hyperreal, Hilary Zaid’s world is dense with mysterious invitations. In fact, her novel itself is exactly such an invitation —
and I’m very glad I said “yes”.
That novel will be published by University of Nebraska Press. Hilary Zaid emailed me herself, totally cold, explaining that my novels had been in her mind as she wrote this one, wondering if I might give it a glance.
I agreed … and then my advance copy collected dust for several months. To be clear, it would have been fine for me to say, in the end, “Alas, I didn’t get to it.” That happens all the time. But … I wasn’t quite ready to give up, because the novel’s premise had tickled my curiosity. (It involves some very nerdy calligraphy.) One quiet weekend in February, I picked it up, tore through it, and wrote my blurb.
So, listen. Obviously there’s a way to do this cynically. That’s true for everything, though! Every task, every exchange, every relationship. There is also a way to do it respectfully, with a kind of deliberate porousness that opens the door to real surprises, for blurber and browser alike.
Recently, a blurb from Philip Pullman sold me instantly and totally:
Did the book live up to Pullman’s praise? No. Was it worth reading? Definitely! That feels about average for a blurb.
Take a look at Asuka Hishiki’s new book of botanical illustrations, Botaniphoria: A Cabinet of Botanical Curiosities, from the terrific Two Rivers Press in Reading, England.
I want to say “I can’t believe these are drawings”, but that’s not right, because it’s not that they look like photographs … they are something else, something hyper-, something almost beyond seeing. Look at the tormented kohlrabi on page 29 and tell me you don’t want to buy this book.
(I have not yet determined how to acquire Botaniphoria in the U.S., but when I do, I’ll let you know … )
A book I have figured out how to import from the U.K. is M. John Harrison’s new “anti-memoir”, which just arrived as I was writing this newsletter:
Twenty years ago, almost, I walked into the Barnes & Noble on King Street in San Francisco (now replaced by a fancy bowling alley) where I discovered a novel that sported on its cover (1) a white cat, and (2) a line of praise from Neil Gaiman:
A remarkable book —
easily my favorite SF novel in the last decade, maybe longer.
On the strength of those words, I bought the novel, which is titled Light, and today I am still reading its author with devotion.
See! Blurbs matter.
Ever since the dawn of computers, people have been predicting a new kind of media that molds itself to your “preferences” …
You could walk into your house and [say to the] AI on your streaming platform, “Hey, I want a movie starring my photoreal avatar and Marilyn Monroe’s photoreal avatar. I want it to be a rom-com because I’ve had a rough day,” and it renders a very competent story with dialogue that mimics your voice. It mimics your voice, and suddenly now you have a rom-com starring you that’s 90 minutes long. So you can curate your story specifically to you.
… and ever since the dawn of computers, they have been wrong!
This isn’t a matter of insufficient technology, now reaching some critical threshold. It’s a matter of nobody actually wanting the product described.
[ … ] Say you want Fortnite to be more of a horror game, right? Then you could ask the AI to ramp up the horror elements of it. So again, you could curate your experience. I think that’s where it’s going.
The people who make these predictions think they are conjuring something profound or imaginative, but what’s always striking to me is their lack of imagination. Like, in addition to being demonstrably wrong, this vision is just … boring … in its conception of art, culture, desire, everything.
Anyway, if you hear someone describing a media future of this kind, it’s a sign you can safely ignore their opinions and predictions. You know I love those convenient razors!
Profoundly great, part 1
Last night, Kathryn and I finished our rewatch of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the animated series that aired on Nickelodeon between 2005 and 2008. The show is compact and purposeful: three seasons of 20 episodes each. The total number of episodes, though, is 61, because the spectacular finale required a little more screen time.
I enjoyed this viewing even more than my first, many years ago, which is saying a lot. This time, I was more aware of the unlikely admixture of wacky humor —
The performances, too, rank as among the best in the history of animation. Dante Basco’s Prince Zuko is one of the all-time great screen voices.
This show was a global smash, so it’s likely that many of you have watched and loved it already. If you haven’t, I really cannot recommend Avatar more highly; this is an uncommonly coherent work of art, with a sense of wholeness and inevitability that is vanishingly rare in any medium, for any age group.
Profoundly great, part 2
Recently, I redownloaded 80 Days, the text-forward adventure game released to great acclaim (including my own) in 2014. For as much as I played it back then, I left most of its territory unexplored, and it’s been great fun to experience the stories/adventures/conspiracies/mysteries waiting down some of those paths. The game’s loop around the globe is studded with delightfully difficult choices, so you’re always thinking, “Next time, I’ll go that away … ”
Everything about 80 Days still works as well as it did in 2014: the crisp, clean visual presentation; the expansive game mechanics; and, of course, Meghna Jayanth’s script, the world it conjures —
If you have never played 80 Days, it is available on nearly every platform. Particularly for people who are perhaps more readers than gamers, this is the demonstration of what the medium has to offer.
Avatar and 80 Days both returned to my life around the same time, and the feeling I got from both encounters was the same. It’s energizing to look more closely at your favorites, trying to understand a little bit better how they succeed.
Both of these favorites are exemplary of the kind of work I want to produce.
I send my newsletters when the moon is full, and WOW was it full last night. We watched it rise above the Oakland hills, at first pale peach against a sky still light. Thirty minutes later, it had deepened into the most golden moon I have ever seen in my life.
That’s it for this edition!
P.S. You’ll receive my next newsletter on July 3.