FIRST OF ALL, an announcement: to commemorate the arrival, at last, of a fresh new movie adaptation of Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, which looks absolutely wild, I am offering an unprecedented summertime reading, a week ahead of the movie’s release.
I’m looking forward to seeing A24’s Green Knight with the poem’s weird language shimmering in my mind; in fact, I think this will be the coolest possible way to see the movie; so, I want to make it possible for more people.
For better and for worse, “reading Sir Gawain & the Green Knight aloud” has become one of my core competencies.
The reading will happen on July 24, which is a Saturday. It will start at 10 a.m. PT / 1 p.m. ET / 6 p.m. BST. You can find all the details —
A few weeks ago, Kathryn and I took the train from Oakland to Chicago, one (long) leg of a cross-country trip. It was terrific: not because Amtrak is terrific, but because even America’s infrastructural negligence cannot defeat the inherent pleasure of train travel. “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine…”
This was our first two-night train ride. We packed all of our own food, an XL picnic; we downloaded episodes of Star Trek: Voyager for offline viewing; we brought books.
Along the way, as the astonishing American West unfurled itself outside the window of our neat roomette, I read —
And, yes: as I read about far-off islands (which were not always islands!!) the Rocky Mountains sailed past.
The most beautiful part of the route, for me, came early on the second day, when the train followed the course of the Colorado River. There were groups of people down there, floating/boating/cavorting, and when the first of them spotted the train, they turned, dropped their shorts, and mooned us. Then, the second group did the same thing. Then the next, and the next; and for two hours, the Colorado River was a parade of bare butts. These were not modest moonings! They were enthusiastic; well-practiced; italicized by the merry slapping of cheeks.
Kathryn and I agreed: from now on, whenever we make this trip, we’re going to do it on this train.
Writers accomplished and aspiring alike find themselves at a fortunate moment: book publishing has recently been reframed by two modern, essential guides.
The modern, essential guide to trade publishing is: So You Want to Publish a Book? by Anne Trubek, published a year ago.
The modern, essential guide to academic publishing is: The Book Proposal Book: A Guide for Scholarly Authors by Laura Portwood-Stacer, published just this week!
Both books are superb: practical, accessible, deeply savvy. But/and the real magic might be the “stack” supporting each of them.
To begin, both have ongoing companions in the newsletters each author writes: Anne’s Notes from a Small Press and Laura’s Manuscript Works Newsletter.
There is, further, a business bustling behind each book and newsletter: Anne’s Belt Publishing and Laura’s Manuscript Works—the latter a consultancy for academic authors that offers a very cool book proposal accelerator.
Years ago, I wrote about the value of working in public. It’s a tricky thing, though, because it’s easy for the “in public” to overwhelm the “working”, and suddenly you’re stuck, very successfully being the person who talks ABOUT the thing… but doesn’t really DO the thing. There’s a creeping charlatanism there; I say that with some sympathy, because I have felt the creep myself, many times.
Here, now, with Anne Trubek and Laura Portwood-Stacer, we have definitive counterexamples, each of them doing the thing AND documenting it, with total grace and magnetism —
I truly believe that if you want to understand how books can be made in the 2020s, you should read Anne and Laura and… basically no one else!
Over the past few months, I’ve been listening to talks from Timothy Morton, the philosopher who popularized the term “hyperobject”, which is an object massively distributed in space and time. Notably, climate change is a hyperobject.
Listening to this talk from March 2021, I made these notes:
Irony as contradiction; something that both is and isn’t.
When things are contradictory but true, there’s a mouthfeel, and that’s called irony. What’s it made out of? It’s made out of reality. Reality signals to us by way of irony. It’s not some cute joke or gesture; it is the SIGNALING FUNCTION of reality.
Reality is ironic, because everywhere it is exactly what it is, but never as it appears.
Chips have mouthfeel.
Reality has ironyfeel.
The second ingredient is ambiguity. Accuracyfeel. Ambiguity identifies accuracy. Science is deeply ambiguous!
The word “ambiguous”, like “ambivalent”, doesn’t mean “neither”, but rather “both”, or “all”—all at once.
Remember that science is all statistical now. Particle physics, astronomy, psychology…
Part of the truthfeel of science is its ambiguity.
Fascism is the elimination of irony & ambiguity.
Here’s a music rec from Timothy Morton, featuring a sample of Charlton Heston’s opening speech from the original Planet of the Apes. “Seen from out here everything seems different. Time bends. Space is boundless…”
There’s a novel due out in October that I truly cannot wait for you to read, or have the opportunity to read, if the concept clicks with you as powerfully as it clicked with me. It’s written by Tamara Shopsin, published by MCD, and its title is
I eagerly read an advance copy and then even more eagerly wrote a blurb, which I will reproduce here, because I took my time composing it, and it gets the feeling right. “Love, love, LOVE” is probably the most important part, because some things you love, and other things you love, love, LOVE:
“Early 1990s Mac computing” sounds niche, and maybe it is, but what a niche: packed full of interesting people who stumbled together across the bridge between the analog and the digital. If that holds any resonance for you at all, you will love, love, LOVE Tamara Shopsin’s new novel. Beautifully written and nerdily precise, LaserWriter II reveals the things we didn’t know then; it enlivened my own memories, gave them new context and richness. This is a really special book.
Go look at LaserWriter II’s perfect cover. I can’t wait for October.
As ever, the newsletter will now denature into a collection of links that I’ve enjoyed enought to jot down. Every so often, I receive a reply to one of these collections, some version of “how am I supposed to look at all this stuff?!” and of course, the answer is: you’re not!
Please think of these links, always, as the vendors at a night market. Most of them you pass by, simply enjoying the fact that they’re there; a few grab your attention; one or two actually provide nourishment.
Just wander through!
I sent this recommendation to the Reading Room earlier this year and, for those of you who aren’t members of that committee, I want to repeat it:
Frank’s Corpus, by Elisabeth Nicula, is
an uncommonly interesting piece of writing, from an uncommonly interesting artist, about an uncommonly interesting bird.
I’ve been reading a lot about Ice Age geology and ecology. To be totally honest with you, before I embarked on this remedial study, I didn’t reaaallyyy understand what a glacier was, or how one was formed. I maxed out at “vague sense of immense ice”.
Well, this lecture from Julie Ferguson at UC Irvine is winning and revelatory. It’s a comprehensive tour of glacial landscapes, and it gives you a solid sense of how they develop; how they move.
Recently, I read David Gange’s book The Frayed Atlantic Edge, a chronicle of his mostly solo kayak expedition along the whole west coast of Britain and Ireland. It’s a travelogue rich with physical detail that cross-fades with David’s appreciations of other work, ranging from history to poetry, that has been important to him; so: a tour both material and intellectual.
One of those introductions is to Tim Robinson, an English artist who lived in Connemara, in Ireland, for many decades. Writing for the Guardian, Nicholas Allen explains that Tim
traced the endless perimeter of the island’s rocky coastline … in search of “a single step as adequate to the ground it clears as is the dolphin’s arc to the wave”. Observing patterns of rock, wind and water opened his prose to the fractal dimensions of the inlet, the cove, the cliff and darkening pool.
Tim wrote several books, one of which I’m reading now, but/and he also made MAPS! He made them not with GIS data but with his feet, insistent that nearly every stroke, every squiggle, should be informed by his own personal exploration and observation.
The National University of Ireland, Galway has high-resolution scans of the maps, and they are amazing. I have to confess, though, that I wish I had a paper copy, like this one that Stephen Sparks found lingering in the post office near the place where Tim lived.
You might have picked up on the past tense; Tim Robinson died in 2020. He was 85 years old.
One of the things David Gange tells us about Tim Robinson’s maps is that he “cheats” the cliffs (which David happens to be kayaking along, beside, under). The image below is not an oblique projection; the map is top-down, as most maps are, but, look at that line of cliffs!
They pop out impossibly —
I suspect that, although I enjoyed the whole of David Gange’s book, its lasting influence on me will be this one particular introduction; and I think about how, if that is the case, it is no failing; the opposite: a triumph. What a gift, when a book acts as a matchmaker —
When I squirrelled away the link to this newsletter from Adam Tooze, about the economic contingencies of the Second World War, I jotted this note:
The thrill of history & theory at large scales; that special leverage of the mind; the final defense, maybe: that you can “think about” a great empire but a great empire cannot “think about” you. Not really. It can hold you in its grip, in its census, its databases, etc. But think about you, theorize you, creatively? No. It cannot. Gotcha!
Here is Tooze, also, on carbon and class—one of the more provocative things I’ve read lately related to climate change.
Did you know that your eyes —
This long, memoiristic essay, via Jay Owens, is wonderful, in large part because I recognize none of it. It’s about a complex, rich response to a particular musician; and this was not me; not ever. The essay describes a matrix of feelings that I find basically alien… but/and, that’s the miracle, of course: it does so in a way that makes it possible for me to receive and appreciate them, at least a little bit.
Also: not for nothing, I feel like Timothy Morton would love this essay.
Earlier this year, I joyfully watched most of the anime Haikyu!!—I now want to go back in time and play high school volleyball —
(Not to suggest I’m in the same league at all, but I’ll confess that I am very pleased whenever someone reads Sourdough and remarks later: Ah! But I thought Robin Sloan was a woman!)
These images used as studies for the book Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom had absolutely no business being so hip IN THE YEAR 1921:
I feel like I’m always saying this, but: I am so grateful for the labors of the people who assemble and maintain these huge online archives, with so much material scanned at high resolution, added to the public domain.
Quiet monuments to a better internet.
Here is a stunning essay by Molly McGhee: moving, ghostly, important. It’s about money and the world, and the way a little bit of money, even the impression of a little bit of money, can protect you from so much suffering. It is that thinnest layer of fat: insulation from the cold of the universe.
You might, at some point, have encountered a statement with roughly this form, intended to shock you:
2025 will be as many years from 1980 as 1980 was from 1935.
And it IS shocking, right? Well… maybe.
Is there any event or transformation that could make those intervals “seem right” again? Anything that would snap 1980 out of its familiar proximity, into its “true” 1935-ish remoteness? (The sci-fi futures depicted on screens today are, after all, firmly fixed in scenarios devised in the 1980s.) You might say, “perhaps an unprecedented global crisis would do it!” but… we had one of those, and even that could not dislodge this smooth future-present.
Maybe the modern condition isn’t a condition, but an event. Maybe it was a phase change, like ice melting into liquid water. After that kind of transformation, you can keep adding energy to the system, but the effect won’t be as dramatic —
Zygmunt Bauman uses this image a bit in his book Liquid Modernity—the “liquid” part is really key. Remember, Bauman is the one who wrote:
We feel rather than know (and many of us refuse to acknowledge) that power (that is, the ability to do things) has been separated from politics (that is, the ability to decide which things need to be done and given priority)
and that seems, to me, intrinsic to the stability of this future-present.
Is the stubborn proximity of 1980 an illusion (asks the newsletter writer born in December of 1979)? Is it a simple function of, among other things, the availability and fidelity of recent media? Or is this uncanny feeling actually a finely-tuned sensor reading, one we ought to be scrutinizing, because it might reveal something deeply true?
You’ll find some of these questions, these preoccupations, curled up inside my new novel, the one I’m finishing now.
(I should note that the AI heads will say, “Oh, just wait. Your next phase change is coming sooner than you think.” If you’re interested in that prediction —
Aren’t these paintings gorgeous? I feel like the one at the top of the newsletter, so bright and inviting, deftly refutes every assumption about the phrase “peat bog”. Kitty Kielland’s art is amazing; I encourage you to check out her biography.
Earlier this year, in service of that new novel —
the global peat carbon pool exceeds that of global vegetation (~560 gigatonnes C) and may be of similar magnitude to the atmospheric carbon pool (~850 gigatonnes C)
Here’s the trick. When a tree falls in a forest, it decomposes, and all the carbon it fixed in its form is liberated, slowly but surely, back into the atmosphere. So, when you look at a forest, “what you see is what you get”, its carbon stockpile proportional to its living mass.
But the bog… oh, the bog. The dark magic of the peat bog is that dead moss drowns in cold water, and there, it does not decompose. It just… piles up, and the carbon it pulled out of the atmosphere remains trapped, with the old shoes, basically for good. The bog is a carbon sink that just sinks and sinks and sinks.
As a bonus, this accumulation happens on civilizational, rather than geological, timescales; all the peat bogs on the planet are new since the end of the Ice Age, about 12,000 years ago.
The bog lover has logged on!
Sent to the Society in July 2021