Published May 22, 2018, at 12:02pm
UW Professor Jessica Johnson reads at Elliott Bay Book Company tomorrow night. Her new book is about the homophobic and misogynistic evangelical church that held Seattle in its sway for years before it disappeared without a trace.
From my room I retrace the intricate lace of maps,
trails of saffron and blue. I begin my story
anywhere, pull a thread of burnt sienna
to the Elephant and Castle,
or travel a Circle to the Barbican.
The world submerged makes sense to me —
the scent of a man’s Cadbury, the sound
of a voice asking please do not leave…
I savor the place names of stations I have dreamed.
It’s what isn’t here that interests me.
How this trinket tray adores deception —
provides a legend to the Angel,
a lover for the Piccadilly train.
How this late 20th century souvenir
keeper of beach glass, tea bag, one tiny bell
creates more than any cartographer would tell.
I lean toward a stranger, grey eyes reading
mine before the doors next open, slightly
close, before we rise and go —
past a young girl offering Puccini
by the escalator’s puddled edge —
past travelers, erotic and unknown.
How we must forgive a map its half-truths,
its absent streaks of grief,
and arrive in a back-lit glance
to where time for one moment rinses clean.
This ... is ... it! Nicole Dieker was in this spot in December, sponsoring the site to share the first volume of her mighty mini-epic The Biographies of Ordinary People. This week, we're welcoming the release of volume 2, the final chapter in the Gruber family story — the one where the girls grow up and find their way in the world. The sample we're featuring is the perfect place to enter, or reenter, this expansive and personal family story.
If you don't know Dieker's work already, get to know it: she's a co-owner of The Billfold, her website is an incredible resource for practical and honest info about the freelance writing life, and she hosts the Writing & Money podcast along similar lines. She's reading from Biographies at Phinney Books on June 6.
We can't thank Nicole Dieker enough for returning to sponsor again. Our sponsors make the Seattle Review of Books possible — while putting great books and events under our readers' eyes each week. Did you know you could sponsor us, as well? If you have a book, event, or opportunity you’d like to get in front of our readers, find out more, or check available dates and reserve a spot. We have some discounted dates available in July right now, and they'll go fast.
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Elliott Bay Book Company, 1521 10th Ave, 624-6600, http://elliottbaybook.com, 7 pm, free.
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Last October, the United Nation’s arts organization UNESCO officially named Seattle a City of Literature, officially making us one of the organization’s nearly 200 members of the Creative Cities network.
After that announcement, Seattle City of Lit, the local organization which put together the winning bid, effectively went dark for a while. I talked with board president Stesha Brandon about what they’ve been up to and what Seattle can expect from our UNESCO status in the months ahead.
“I think the main thing I’d say is we’re still in learning mode,” Brandon says. She recently represented Seattle at the annual City of Literature conference in Iowa City, which allowed her to meet and begin forming relationships with our 27 other sister cities in the literature designation. In June, she’s heading to Krakow to attend with the other 180 or so Creative Cities to “talk about topics like transportation and housing and the arts and how those things can impact each other.”
These conferences are important, Brandon says, because they allow us to see “some of the cool things other cities are doing.” She especially liked Edinburgh’s program of “putting poetry out in the public thoroughfare as something people engage with on their daily commutes.” When cities put poetry “in shop windows and on sidewalks,” she says, “then we’re not expecting people to go out of their way to engage with literature — we’re trying to engage them where they are already.”
Additionally, several of the other cities are hosting residency programs, so we’ll soon have the opportunity to send Seattle writers abroad and hopefully host sister city authors here in town in an effort to share Seattle’s literature with the rest of the world.
Tomorrow night—Tuesday the 22nd — Seattle City of Literature is hosting a party at the Central Library downtown. Brandon calls it a “pretty simple celebration,” an opportunity to “take a minute to celebrate the designation with the folks who make it happen and the community that it’s for.”
Seattle City of Lit will present some information about the designation and some plans for the future, but Brandon is most excited to hear about what you want out of the city’s UNESCO designation. “Folks will have an opportunity to talk to us,” Brandon says, and “hopefully they will share what they’re excited about and what they’re hoping” for Seattle as a City of Literature.
If you can’t make it to the party tomorrow night but you’d like to learn more about Seattle’s City of Literature plans, you should sign up for Seattle City of Lit’s newsletter, or follow them on social media.
But really, if you can, you should come to the party. Seattle City of Lit is just getting started, and people who get involved now can have outsized influence on the future of the organization. If you’ve been looking for a way to make your mark on the future of literature in this city, you won’t get a better chance than this.
Each week, the Sunday Post highlights a few articles we enjoyed this week, good for consumption over a cup of coffee (or tea, if that's your pleasure). Settle in for a while; we saved you a seat. You can also look through the archives.
This essay by Bryan Washington is remarkable. It’s a poignant personal essay about growing up gay and black and how movies showed him a possible self, even in times and places where that self was terrifying and dangerous. It’s a record of how cinematic representation of being queer and black has evolved, and how the way we see such films is evolving too. And it’s an unrefusable demand to keep telling and filming and printing and promoting stories that aren’t the dominant narrative. Those stories are lifelines. They’re weapons. They’re the signals that can, eventually, overcome the noise.
The audacity required to ask if we need another gay movie, if we need any more gay movies, transcends thinking altogether. It is a thoughtless question. You only ask it if you’ve seen yourself so ingrained into the culture, into the fabric of the world, that your absence from those seams is unthinkable. You only ask that question if you’ve never been repulsed by yourself, or the idea that anyone like you, anywhere, could be happy. You only ask that question if you don’t know what it means to feel like the only person on the planet.
If you’re a dog or cat up for adoption online, something’s gone badly awry. You used to be cared for; now you aren’t. And everybody knows you’ve been dismissed from your position, maybe with cause.
So the people who write descriptions for Petfinder have a tough job: to show us how we could love something that seems unlovable, and convince us that all dogs are good dogs one way or another. Here’s Andrea DenHoed with the story of how Petfinder hooked her, hard, on a tiny chihuahua with a bad attitude and a big heart.
Behold the lopsided ears! Behold the scraggly coat! Behold the lolling tongue, the malformed limb, the crooked tail! Each creature is held up for careful consideration, and each is declared worthy. This is the look of love in the Corinthian sense, patient and kind and keeping no record of any pup’s wrongs.
The assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs is Becky Hammon, the first woman to be hired as a full-time assistant coach for the NBA, the NFL, the MLB, or the NHL. When a rumor surfaced that Hammon was being interviewed for a head coach position — just interviewed, not hired, not even a frontrunner — sports exploded. Pau Gasol plays for the Spurs; he’s a six-time NBA All-Star and a four-time All-NBA selection, which I assume is very good. His insider takedown of the arguments against Hammond is so lovely: straightforward, perfectly pitched, and totally unambivalent about giving women the roles they deserve, no exceptions.
Let’s be real: There are pushes now for increased gender diversity in the workplace of pretty much every industry in the world. It’s what’s expected. More importantly — it’s what’s right. And yet the NBA should get a pass because some fans are willing to take it easy on us … because we’re “sports”?
I really hope not.
If you are dizzied by the pace, insanity, and sheer volume of the news cycle these days (ha ha ha! I’m kidding! of course you are!), turn to this, by Rebecca Solnit. Block by excruciating block, she stacks together all of the stories scattered by Hurricane Trump’s tweet-driven wind. There’s already been a coup in America. And while we’re waiting for something that’s already here to arrive, we’re letting our country be gutted from the inside out.
After the coup, everything seems crazy, the news is overwhelming, and some try to cope by withdrawing or pretending that things are normal. Others are overwhelmed and distraught. I’m afflicted by a kind of hypervigilance of the news, a daily obsession to watch what’s going on that is partly a quest for sense in what seems so senseless. At least I’ve been able to find the patterns and understand who the key players are, but to see the logic behind the chaos brings you face to face with how deep the trouble is.
Molly Crabapple is a New York based artist and writer. Her latest book Brothers of the Gun, a collaboration with Syrian author and journalist Marwan Hisham, was just released this week (we reviewed her memoir Drawing Blood). She's appearing this Monday, the 21st, at The Elliott Bay Book Company, with Hisham joining via Skype.
What are you reading now?
Mathias Énard's Compass, the most dense rich and brilliant novel about orientalism (in every sense of that word), love, and the impossibility of disentangling east and west.
What did you read last?
Rania Abouzeid's No Turning Back, which is an astounding work of journalism about how the Syrian revolution became the Syrian catastrophe.
What are you reading next?
Ece Temelkuran's Women Who Blow on Knots.
Erica C. Barnett got the scoop on a BONKERS story. It begins:
On Saturday, April 14, staffers at the downtown Seattle library discovered two alarming objects on its third-floor shelves: Two books, including South of Broad, a family drama by Pat Conroy, that had been hollowed out and filled with what appeared to library staffers to be two primitive homemade bombs, according to an internal library email about the incident.
The story is too good to ruin, so you have to go read the rest. It raises some important questions about training exercises, consent, and emergency preparedness.
Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to email@example.com.
If you had to choose one style of facial hair to wear for the rest of your life, which would it be: Isaac Asimov’s muttonchops or Mark Twain’s soup-strainer?
Earl, Cherry Hill
Between the two, I would opt for Asimov’s muttonchops, which resemble a spider jungle gym and thus better fit my “basement chic” aesthetic. Plus, soup is for chumps with soft teeth.
But given my druthers, I would grow Salman Rushdie’s elegant chindalier. My native chin has the work ethic of a Trump – it is weak. In fact, if you stacked my chin on top of Don Jr.’s you’d still only have half an adult-sized chin per one goblin body. A chindalier would make my face more credibly human. Alas, there is no hope for Don Jr.
Gyasi is arriving in Seattle at a high point in her career - when Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to you as "an inspiration," you know you're doing something right - but it's easy to imagine that she'll ascend to even higher peaks in years to come. The Seattle Reads program is a great way for our city to stake a claim on Gyasi's future success, to ensure that she'll return to share her victories with us for years to come.
(Various locations and times, free.)
Last week I did something that I have never done before: I went into a comic book shop and I paid money for a pair of Deadpool comics. Even more embarrassing: I read them and I loved them.
Deadpool never really clicked for me. His breaking-the-fourth-wall schtick is rarely handled well and I like my superheroes to have moral codes. I don’t think the character represents an age of decadence in superhero comics or anything histrionic like that. I don’t begrudge Deadpool fans their hero. I just don’t think he’s funny or original. (And the Deadpool movie, whose sequel is in theaters tomorrow, seemed remarkably on-brand in that way: I didn’t think it was especially funny or smart, but it really clicked for certain audiences.)
But Marvel Comics is glutting comic shop shelves with Deadpool comics to cash in on the new movie, and one of the miniseries they’re publishing is titled You Are Deadpool. If you’re interested in playful experimentation in the comics medium, you’ll want to pick this one up — even if you’re not a Deadpool fan.
You Are Deadpool is a choose-your-own adventure comic. The way it works is this: every panel in the comic is numbered. Whenever Deadpool faces a dilemma, the reader can choose which way to go, and each decision sends them to a different panel. “If you’d like me to have a flashback,” Deadpool tells the reader in the first issue, “go to 72. Alternatively, if you’d rather get right into it, go to 66.” It’s not all fight-oriented; later in the series, readers get to choose whether Deadpool shares his emotions through painting (“go to 16”) or poetry (“go to 14.”)
There are more rules, too — “cool” violent actions increase Deadpool’s Badness Score, while crawling through tunnels adds to his Sadness Score. And readers can “play” combat in the book by rolling dice to determine the outcome of certain battles. But readers can also “cheat” and barrel through the book, flipping back and forth to see the outcomes of various actions.
The big difference between this Deadpool book and every other Deadpool comic is the writer, Al Ewing. Ewing has as close to a perfect record as any Marvel writer — he writes stories that reflect back on decades of Marvel history while also pushing forward into new concepts and, in this particular case, storytelling techniques.
But every comic is a collaboration, and Salva Espin’s artwork in issue 1 is a terrific complement to Ewing’s script: his art is clear and just cartoonish enough to sell the ludicrous premise. Paco Diaz’s art in issue two — in which Deadpool is zapped back in time to Marvel’s earliest days to riff on the Fantastic Four’s origin — is a little stiff for my tastes, although Diaz does do a pretty good riff on early Marvel art.
I’m a sucker for this kind of formal play, and I have to begrudgingly admit that Deadpool is exactly the right character for this kind of a story: his ability to address the reader directly helps guide novices through the book, and his unpredictable amoral tendencies make him a believable audience surrogate for every course of action.
You Are Deadpool hasn’t converted me to a hardcore Deadpool fan, but it has opened up my understanding of what the character is capable of doing in a story. Ewing’s excitement for the possibilities of the medium prove that old adage about how in the right hands there’s no such thing as a bad character. You Are Deadpool proves that Ewing’s hands are abler than just about anyone in mainstream superhero comics.
Next Tuesday night at the Central Library downtown, Seattle City of Literature will be throwing a party to celebrate the fact that our city has been officially designated a UNESCO City of Literature. This is just a straightforward party — no readings, no lectures, no ribbon-cuttings. Just a bunch of Seattleites enjoying drinks and snacks, talking about the future of Seattle's literary scene as we connect with UNESCO's giant Creative Cities network. The party is free for everyone, though City of Literature requests that you RSVP so they know how much punch to put out. The party starts at 7 pm. Come have fun, and learn more about the plans to celebrate Seattle as a world-class lit city.
Are you familiar with The Humble Bundle, which sells online items — often games or pieces of software — for charity? The current Humble Bundle features up to $445 worth of sci-fi ebooks to celebrate the 2018 Nebula Awards. You can buy various tiers of books starting at a buck, but I'd urge you to splurge on the $20 or more bundle, which includes some great books including James Morrow's Only Begotten Daughter, which is one of my most-loved reading experiences of all time. And when we're talking about books that I love, this bundle also features Carol Emshwiller's The Mount, which is a favorite reading experience of mine.
How are ebooks really selling? According to Quartz's Thu-Thuong Ha, the answer is complicated, and it involves Amazon's shitty business practices.
Speaking of Amazon, it looks like they're shutting down Kindle Worlds, which was supposed to be an officially sanctioned fan-fiction outlet for intellectual property including Veronica Mars, GI Joe, and, weirdly, the works of Kurt Vonnegut.
Anyone know where I can find a copy of this book?
this is the only book on my wish list pic.twitter.com/bKH461FadS— stephanie (@mckellogs) May 15, 2018
When he's not editing the forward-thinking science/fiction magazine Scout.ai, Eliot Peper writes sci-fi novels. His latest, Bandwidth, is a neo-noir centered around a lobbyist who is nearly crushed under the massive weight of information overload. Peper talked with us about gender roles in noir fiction, where he looks for sci-fi inspiration, and how we're still wrestling with the ramifications of the internet. This interview has been lightly edited.
You’ve written a noir novel and you’re obviously a forward-thinking guy, and I’m curious how you approach writing this noir-ish hyper-masculine genre in a modern context. I think that you do have an interesting angle on it, but if I were to tell a reader to try a noir novel starring a character named Dag Calhoun I think some people might balk. You know what I mean?
Sure. It’s interesting writing Dag, because he’s the first straight male character that I’ve written as a single protagonist. I have one other book, Cumulus, where there were three point-of-view protagonists, and there was one other male character in that book. But Bandwidth was actually the first, and sort of interestingly, Bandwidth is part of a trilogy, but it’s not a linear trilogy.
So the second and third book all take place in the same universe, have a lot of the same cast, but they different protagonists and they have different narrative and character arcs. You can actually read each of the books independently if you wanted to. And so, it was an interesting learning experience for me getting comfortable writing Dag, which is sort of ironic given that I am a straight, white, male.
I am every category that would fit that genre in theory, but that’s actually not what most of my writing has been like to date. So it was interesting coming at it from that angle. And I actually had fun with it. Unfortunately, there’s a great example that I can’t give because it would be a spoiler. But I really did try to play with some of that stuff in the book.
Yeah, there’s a scene very early on where Dag’s led around by his erection, and it felt like you were very cued into the traps of the genre.
Yeah, and I think as you read on, you might find some fun psychological ones as well. And so I found that to be an interesting experience: it was a learning opportunity for me to try to be more aware of the cultural context that the story would fit into, and then it was also interesting because it was my first time doing it, so that was fun.
I didn’t actually approach writing Dag much differently than I’ve written other characters in the past. The first trilogy I ever wrote — the first book came out back in 2014 — had an African-American female protagonist, and one of those things that I heard from readers in that community was that the story spoke to them in part because it just like how anyone would look at the world. It wasn’t actually that specific. Her cultural background was not actually relevant to the story and it wasn’t a big deal basically in the context of the story — even though for other characters there were impacts.
But it was not a book about race, and I think that for readers sometimes that can be a positive thing. It’s not intended to be a book about masculinity, even though that is woven through the story and certainly relevant to its cultural context. I don’t know if that answered your question.
No, it did. I think it’s an issue that people who read my site would consider when browsing the cover copy and considering picking up the book.
Yeah, that’s true. And one thing I would say that might be relevant to those readers is that not limited to Dag’s gender identity or cultural background or anything like that.
What I find most interesting as a novelist is ambiguity, shades of gray where there’s a lot of conflict. So whenever I’m working on any kind of character, I’m always looking for that zone where their hopes and fears intersect, and the weird patches where they’re not actually sure about their own moral standing or certainty — where they’re not just charging in with this very, very clear sense of what is right and wrong. I’m much, much more interested in the nuance in the middle.
And that applies to Dag’s identity and it applies to his worldview. He’s not someone who has a really clear sense of moral superiority, and he’s sort of a conflicted protagonist. He’s not a hero right off the bat. And it also applies to the worldbuilding.
It’s funny because sometimes I hear from readers when they read Bandwidth, they’ll call it a dystopian novel. And what I find really interesting about that is that I did not think of it as a dystopian novel while writing it. There are certainly some dark things that happen in the world — some of the impacts of accelerated climate change and stuff like that are certainly dark — but there are actually some really beautiful and wonderful things about this future that we might not have imagined either. And so,
I always try to look for those shades of gray and that nuance, so I hope that even if the description makes you think that it’s a very straight up masculine noir story, that if you actually give it a read and take the story for a spin you might discover that there’s more complexity there than you might have guessed otherwise.
You’ve got a concept in the book called the Feed. Most people receive their media, their information in the form of a feed, which is like a gutter with information flowing through it in more or less chronological order. Were you picturing this sort of gutter of a feed when you were thinking about The Feed in this book? Do you think that we are trapped in this informational flow for the near future, this particular way of getting information?
Yeah, so I guess the way I think about it is that digital technology, computers, and computer networks have so vastly decreased the cost of storing and distributing and sharing and publishing information that information is now free. We take it for granted. We take Wikipedia for granted, we take Google for granted, we take all of these things for granted. And what that means is that compared to any other human at any other point in history, we walk around with all knowledge in our pockets at our beck and call.
And that can be very empowering in very obvious ways: your sink is broken, so you look on YouTube for this precise model and it will show you how to take it apart and fix it. But it also presents us with this new challenge that no one has ever had to face before, and that is, when you have this surfeit of information, how do you actually find the useful, relevant stuff? And we are currently at the very, very beginning point in history of ever having to improvise through solutions to that problem.
And so, some obvious examples of solutions that we are currently experimenting with are Google search, where you ask the internet a question and they have an algorithm that takes, I think, between three and four hundred independent variables to automatically calculate what the results should be for you. It’s not just ranked links, it is incredibly sophisticated.
If you use Gmail or similar large services, those services are now becoming algorithmic. You’ll probably notice that in your email inbox that things get automatically filtered into different categories like “promotions” or “social.” The algorithm can be useful because it becomes this filter that allows us to ignore the stuff that’s less important, or to categorize information for us in some way or another. And I think that there’s really no way to get around the fact that when you have all of this of information you need to be able to filter it.
Just as most Netflix viewers have experienced, when you go to watch Netflix a lot of the time you end up spending 45 minutes trying to decide what to watch, and you end up never really watching anything, right?
And that points to how bad we are at this. For all the news items about the power of Big Data and social media, this is a massive information problem that we are really only starting to come to grips with. And I think that there are so many really complex issues baked into how you filter information that we’ve never had to deal with before.
I don’t know if you’ve read much about bias baked into machine learning models, but there’s a great example in policing where you have a bunch of arrest records that show certain types of people are arrested more often than others. It doesn’t take into account that it actually might be reflective of a much greater systemic corruption and not just the fact those should be the people getting arrested.
There are so many decisions baked into that, that many of us don’t even realize are happening. So we experience the results of the feed, the architecture of those feeds is opaque to us. And I think that is a really big challenge that will be one of the big issues of this century. Because the media you consume, the information you access, shapes the way you see the world and shapes the decisions you make — both in your own life on a very personal level, like, “what Netflix show am I gonna watch?” and also, at a community level, even up to the level of the federal government: “what kinds of rules should we have about how people do things on the Internet?”
Yeah, so this is a question I think that probably every sci fi author gets asked a lot, but it seems like you’re cutting very close to the modern time with this book so I’m going to ask anyway: how do you write about the future without getting steamrolled by it?
Well, I very well might. Hopefully, my answer to this question will have somewhat of a halflife. We’ll see.
I think that science fiction is really about the present, not about the future. So if you read 1984, it was written in 1948. And I think it was written about 1948, and I think that the reason why it feels relevant in 2018 tells us more about 2018 than about George Orwell. Or I guess it tells us that he is an amazing novelist and an amazing observer of the human condition. But I think it speaks far more to the feeling of living in a society that is beyond our control and the paranoia that can come through that. It’s a great metaphor for state surveillance.
What I find interesting about science fiction as a reader is that it sort of transports me into this plausible alternative reality. And because it is an alternative reality, it actually gives my imagination more space because I’m not constantly questioning the veracity of the every fact. And then when I return, hopefully, it’s a very compelling and transformative experience. And so when I come back to my present reality, my own world view has shifted a bit so it actually helped me challenge the assumptions that I make every day when I look at the world. That’s what I get out of science fiction as a reader.
As a writer, I have no way to predict the future. If we were able to predict the future, it would be very, very boring, and science fiction would actually be totally useless. I think that the power of science fiction is that it can paint multiple different futures, and that by experiencing those very different futures then we’ll have more context for the decisions we make today.
But I have kind of a game that readers might want to try in their own lives just for fun, and writers might find it useful if they’re trying to write about the future. Rather than trying to read a trend report, or something like that, try to look for weird details in the present rather than having a thought experiment about the future.
So as an example, William Gibson has that famous quote, “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And how can you find those pockets in the present day of future that has not yet been evenly distributed? So I’ll give you one example: Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian’s hot tip for predicting the future is to look at rich people, which initially sounds horribly Silicon Valley techno-libertarian, right?
But if you take it a step deeper, you can actually find that it’s a really useful. Who were the people that could afford to drive cars? Rich people. TWho are the first people to ride on trains? Rich people, because they were the only people who could afford them. If you look at the history of technology, rich people are almost always the earliest adopters because the new technology that has been developed is only accessible at that pricepoint early on, before it becomes mainstream.
So if you want to think about what might the world look like in 10 years, or in 20 years, one fun way to think about that is: what are things that only very rich people do today, and what if those things were things that everyone had access to all the time?
So that’s one fun way to do it. I would take that a level deeper and say, don’t just limit it to rich people. One of the communities that I like to learn from is hobbyists — people who do things for the intrinsic joy of doing the thing. They’re doing stuff just for fun, not for financial gain, not for fame or fortune. They’re doing it because they just get a lot of joy out of tinkering and screwing around with whatever their hobby is.
Often those communities also can turn out to be pockets of the future that has arrived early, because they’re so absorbed in whatever it is that they’re passionate about that they make these strides that nobody even realizes could be really transformative for our society as a whole until they’re much more widely distributed. A good example of that would actually be very, very, very early Silicon Valley, where you had a lot of people who were playing with computers. This is decades and decades and decades ago, basically for fun, right?
They would screw around and trade stuff with friends and trade ideas with friends. The way of thinking they developed has now come to be a huge part of the economy and of our of politics and of the things we use everyday. And so, if you are a science fiction writer and you want to try to tease out what might be an interesting scenario, try those two. Think about what rich people might be doing and what if everybody had access to it, and then think about what hobbyists might be doing and what if everybody was doing that all the time too.
That’s great. Both of those tests sort of apply to Apple, because Steve Jobs started out as a phone phreak, but then obviously the luxury computing component came into it later on in his career.
Yeah, absolutely. The third thing, I guess the closer, I would say, is that I read very widely. But the one genre that helps me think about the future most effectively is reading a lot of history. If anybody is interested in trying to think more flexibly about the future, I think that history is the best guide.
Just as with reading good science fiction, reading good history shows you in how many ways the world can change. The lives we live today are so fundamentally different than the lives of ancient Romans. In fact, my grandparents wouldn’t even understand what I call a job today. And they certainly wouldn’t understand the stuff that I use every day and how I’m able to communicate with people. We live in a world full of wonders and we’re so jaded because we use it all the time that it’s really easy to take everything for granted.
But if you read history and you really try to imagine yourself living in that era, you’ll very quickly think about how malleable our world is. Not just the technologies we use, but our cultural institutions, our political instructions, our daily life. It has changed a lot, and I find that thinking in those ways tends to relax the constraints that I have on my own thinking when I try to look forward.
Over at Fantagraphics' online comics magazine The Comics Journal, Seattle cartoonist Colleen Frakes is publishing her diary comics about a visit to a robot-and-comics convention in Alaska. The first strip begins, "I had been feeling angry for a long time. My job was bad, the president is bad, the news is bad." If you can relate, you'll likely find a lot to enjoy here. It's a special treat to see Frakes working with color: those early panels of her colored in with a sloppy red shroud to depict her anger indicate what she can do when she's not constrained by the limitations of print. Day two went up this morning. Go check out the strips, and then we can all start pestering Fantagraphics to publish a long-overdue collection of Frakes's minicomics work.
One must have a mind of a gardener
To regard the dirt with thoughts
Approximate to wonder, to live in
Fascination of the earthworm —
Pink hermaphrodite of the jiggling zither;
And to behold the Mrs. Jekyll rose,
To note the light’s addictive sugaring
In sun gold tomatoes
And not to think of quiet
Promises in the winter’s chill and frost,
The past delicious juices, that in time
Attaches bitterness to skin, to rot, then snow —
Which alters the birds predictive packages of shit —
Companion to the gardener who knows
She must garden through the rain and in light snow.
The New York Times is reporting that journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe passed away in Manhattan yesterday. He was 88 years old. Wolfe's stylish brand of New Journalism has been an unmistakable influence on generations of young reporters from the 1960s to today. I read pretty much all of Wolfe's nonfiction work growing up, and his rhythms and cadence runs so deep into me that I still unconsciously copy his tics all the time in my work. One of my favorite Wolfe passages is the rant about hemmorrhoids that opens his essay about the "Me" Decade for New York Magazine.
Maybe you haven't read Tom Wolfe, and maybe the tributes on the internet are convincing you that you should give him a try. Let me recommend a course of action: The latter half of Wolfe's career was spent on a series of gigantic satirical novels — The Bonfire of the Vanities, A Man in Full, I Am Charlotte Simmons — that were received to diminishing critical returns. If you're curious about Wolfe's work, I'd send you to his non-fiction titles first — The Painted Word, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, The Right Stuff — and then encourage you to try the novels (in chronological order from oldest to newest) if you really like what you find. Be advised that not all of his work has aged well, but that's true of pretty much all journalism. He was intensely of his time, and because he was intensely of his time, he is a writer who will shape the face of writing for decades yet to come.