Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Orwell Comes to America

Scary times often trigger acts of stark beauty. This is the logo for a series of panels being held tomorrow at the New York Public Library which will explore "the past, present, and future of deceptive political speech, and assess what can be done to bring more realism and honesty into the conduct of America’s public affairs." I found the site via Michael Massing's excellent and disturbing essay at Salon, "We are the Thought Police," excerpted from the anthology What Orwell Didn't Know, which is being released in tandem with the NYPL conference.

The old symbol of the polis, the stars on the blue field, are replaced by urgent typography. Thought? Discourse? News headlines? In any case, the solid, unifying field of blue is gone, the sparkling sea of stars become transparent twitching words, pierced and pinned down by stripes-become-bars. A chilling yet elegant visual statement on a threatening state of affairs.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

White Void, Black Words

Melville’s Moby-Dick was published 156 years ago today. I’ve always felt that the first edition title page was beautifully ominous. Stark as a gravestone in a Nantucket churchyard, or scrimshaw scratched into whalebone. Stare at it and hear the air whistling on the whitecaps, the waves thundering along the bow.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Osama® the Brand

Six years ago to this very minute (just after 9 in the morning) I was under the streets of New York, riding to work on the subway, lucky enough to get a seat so I could read without getting jostled. The book was Barry Miles' The Beat Hotel, an account of the subterranean literary figures Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Brion Gysin and Gregory Corso as they mixed it up in a rundown little Paris fleabag in the 50s and 60s. The passage I was reading dealt with a mysterious 11th Century figure named Hassan I'Sabbah, Grand Master of the Ismaili Hashishim sect, or Assassins, who indoctrinated and trained his legions in his hidden mountain stronghold of Alamut, Persia, and sent them forth to infiltrate Seljuk Turkish society and kill their political enemies. His invisibility and omnipresence fascinated Burroughs and Gysin; they adopted him as a symbol of occult subversion in their Cold War era, mass media conscious art. He became known to the Turks as "The Old Man of the Mountain," a terrifying bogeyman for grown men who feared waking to find his dagger in their pillows, dire warnings attached. That morning on the subway, I reflected on how historic figures eventually inherit the clothing of old archetypes. The latest Middle Eastern bugaboo came to mind, a rich Saudi hidden somewhere in the mountains training his own loyal, deluded legions to go forth and blow up embassies. I couldn't recall his name.

I think I was still struggling to remember when I got off at 23rd Street, emerged into the sunlight and stopped and stared, in the midst of a silent sidewalk crowd, at the sight of the burning Twin Towers; they were perfectly framed by the chasm of Fifth Avenue. I haven't forgotten his name since that day.

And now, six years on, OBL has receded and grown omnipresent.
He seems to occupy a chamber of our minds, rather than a point in time and space. In his most recent video, he even appears to be growing younger, sporting a dense black beard. Here, the archetypes coalesce and blur. Bram Stoker's Dracula grew younger as he gorged on the blood of his victims, his hair turning black from a snowy white over the course of the novel; he was, interestingly enough, another incarnation of the Oriental Other, threatening Victorian Western stability. Of course, in the age of electronic and digital media, there's a more useful term for these enduring, stealthy archetypes who inhabit our dreams and nightmares. We call them brands. And apparently OBL and/or his handlers, whoever they may be, have a decent grasp of branding principles: keep the brand consistent and straightforward, a quick read in the saturated media environment. Use a select color palette. And refresh the brand every few years, whether it takes a leaner typeface, or a henna dye rinse. The Old Man must stay young. He doesn't even have to stay alive: Elvis and Marilyn, Kerouac and Ché Guevara, even Hitler are powerful brands today. All it takes is a responsive target audience.

This is one brand I'd like to relegate to the scrap heap. No Logo indeed.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The Endless Scroll: Kerouac in the Digital Age

It is ironic to contemplate: Jack Kerouac the man was too fragile to withstand the glare of fame for more than a few years, whereas the legend has survived a half-century of relentless media revolution. The anniversary publication of the fabled "scroll" edition of his paradigm-shifting novel On the Road has prompted me to reflect on the many assumptions about writing and publishing that have changed in the half-century since the debut of the original. We are all Jack's children, I think, in profound and superficial ways.

Kerouac's discovery, the freedom to move, to finally get down that novel in a seamless thought/hand/key/paper gesture without the distraction of having to swap in each fresh sheet is something we all now take for granted, especially bloggers. What is a blog, or any Word document, really, but a scroll? The second-guessing and self-censorship he struggled against will always be with us, but technology is now more of a balm than an irritant. Where Jack improvised a new seamless format with tape and scissors we now fashion our own contours with the click of a few options and virtual buttons— we post hourly, daily, weekly or randomly, we tag and categorize; we revise instantly as we write, or we revise stealthily right on the "published" page in broad daylight and hope no one notices.

Even the stigma of being "unpublished" has lost some sting. Nowadays many a fool with nothing to say can reach thousands in minutes from his or her laptop. Kerouac crisscrossed the nation for most of the 1950s with a rucksack full of unpublished, unseen, unread, brilliant manuscripts, adding to them as he went — scratching into notepads his lonely dispatches from hill, dale and half-empty coffee shop long before WiFi was even imaginable. He carried his life on his back like a snail carries its shell, finally letting down his load in 1957 after Viking published the heavily-edited and forcibly-punctuated On the Road. Had he survived until 2007 he might very well have disowned most of us, his speed-typing, Warbucks-coffee-swilling progenitors, much as he disowned and disavowed the media-empowered beatniks and hippies of his waning days. Certain particulars of the Kerouac (or "Duluoz") legend— i.e. breaking the shackles of conventional syntax and conventional writing tools — have become technically irrelevant, though powerfully mythic. The core of the legend, his vision and sheer empathy as a writer, are still rare and valuable qualities, not widely parsed out amongst us digital-era coffee bar typists.

But I dare say poor Jack would have swapped that heavy rucksack-full of manuscripts for a nice 1GB thumb drive in a heartbeat. He may have been a Holy Goof, but he was no fool.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Forever-After-Images: the Visual Language of 9/11

The American novel of the moment seems to be Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, praised in some quarters as the first great fictional work on 9/11. Last February, Anthony Cummins’ thought-provoking post at the Guardian Unlimited’s A&E blog asked “Does literature sell 9/11 short?” and he pretty much answered in the affirmative after briefly examining eight novels; through a fluke of timing he does not mention DeLillo’s book, which was published last month. I’d be very curious to see what Cummins makes of it, and how it would affect his conclusion. I haven’t picked up the book yet, and for the most part I managed to avoid reviews and excerpts: I want my read to be as fresh as possible, to be completely open to whatever unique take DeLillo has on that day. Unfortunately, all it took was a glimpse of Ji Lee’s enigmatic illustration (above, left) on the front page of last week’s New York Times Book Review to pull me far enough into Frank Rich’s review to read:
“In his new novel, Don DeLillo shoves us back into the day itself in his first sentence: ‘It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.’ He resurrects that world as it was, bottling the mortal dread, high anxiety and mass confusion that seem so distant now.”
As insightful as Frank Rich usually is, I couldn’t disagree more. It reads like the first sentence of a novel, yes, maybe even of a very good novel, but the sheer awful immediacy of that day allowed for no metaphor, no reflection, and so I find the passage somehow flat and distant. But by contrast I couldn't take my eyes off the illustration: the antiseptic vertical bands— an instant visual shorthand for the exterior of the Twin Towers— juxtaposed with the ominous smudge (a scorch mark perhaps, but more likely a suggestion of the infamously banned photo of the “falling man” of the novel’s title)——a disturbing and familiar after-image of calamity. Before I even read the title of the review I read the picture, which “shoved” me “back into the day itself” more surely than De Lillo’s first sentence ever could.

9/11 was the first event to traumatize the world in real time.
As David Friend writes in his excellent Watching the World Change— The Stories Behind the Images of 9/11: “... we were one world taking in the same scene and connected by the same horrifying picture story.” For many New Yorkers, there was nothing between them and incomprehensible horror but a few cubic miles of clear autumn air; for the rest of the world there was only the few added minutes it took for the electrons to dash to their screens and monitors. In the digital age, it is the capacity to capture and transmit the most fleeting visual impression that is driving us as a civilization to a post-literate state. We are amassing a backlog of iconic visual cues around momentous events (the Towers, the toppling of Hussein’s statue, the hooded figure of Abu Ghraib, hostages in orange jumpsuits, etc.) even as we struggle to form the right words in reaction; what’s more, this new visual lexicon is revising the past even as it frames the future.

The World Trade Center was a cultural icon and touchstone long before 9/11, but no one suspected we were looking into the future whenever we contemplated it. An image of the intact towers now seems like a time-lapse photo of their collapse, minus the clouds of dust and smoke. They were pure verticality, their form and destruction forever now inseparable in the collective memory in a perversion of the original modernist dictum “form follows function.” Again, a perfect collective after-image, allowing for complex visuals puns like that in Milan Bozic’s cover design(above, right) for Ken Kalfus’ novel A Disorder Peculiar to the Country (which did receive mention in Cummins’ blog post). Here, twin sticks of dynamite with lit fuses against a deep blue background stand for a marriage in bitter dissolution against the backdrop of 9/11 and its ongoing global aftermath of war and more terrorism. The cover design is bold yet low-key and disarmingly simple, appropriate enough for a black comedy which doesn't seek to reclaim the terrible day itself—— but to examine those dark places in our selves where the after-images still flicker.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Myth That Wouldn't Sit Still, Part 2

On May 29, 1977, a Sunday, I finally got myself down to the Loews Astor Plaza, off Times Square, to see what all the hubbub was about. If you're following the Edward Copeland-hosted Star Wars 30th Anniversary Blog-a-thon, I'm sure you'll find no shortage of memoirs and reminiscences of May 1977 and the variety of first-ever Star Wars experiences, so to cut to the chase: what I saw that day, sitting in about the fourth row, on a screen which spanned my peripheral vision, was fairly unprecedented and had no conceivable follow-up. I love Roger Ebert's summing up so I'll just lift it wholesale here: “It's... as corny as Kansas in August--and a masterpiece.”

Probably the most gratifying thing about Star Wars in retrospect was that it was oddly vindicating. It spoke directly to my particular and peculiar set of tastes, as an introverted, bookish and highly romantic high-schooler (i.e., romantic in the sense of obsessed by adventure and mystery, not yet in the adventures-with-the-opposite-sex sense). Special effects, gadgetry, pulp space opera, old-Hollywood swashbuckling, heaving full-orchestra music scores, anachronistic movie effects like wipes and iris fades, over-the-top comic book heroes and villains, Arthurian romance... somehow, as eclectic and private as it was, this guy Lucas harvested my world and showed everyone else how cool it was. He made my movie, and the best part was how uncompromisingly clunky and corny it was; I mean, what kind of title is "Star Wars” anyway? The kind you make up on a thoughtless summer afternoon when you're eight years old, playing ray guns with your best friend and you just happen to need a quick title for your improvised adventure; or the kind you make up with a little self-mocking bravado for the comic book pastiche you're drawing in your high school sketchpad, the cruddy little mishmash of Dune, Lord of the Rings, and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom novels.

Clunky, corny, perfect.
And in the summer of 1977, on the huge screen of the Astor Plaza, with the wonderful Ben Burrt sound effects and John Williams' soaring music in Dolby Surround Stereo, completely real. (There are hundreds of us in the audience that day, but we might as well all be huddled around a campfire in the deep dark woods, enjoying the monster tales. Princess Leia growls "It could be worse," having fallen into the Death Star's garbage disposal, and the audience titters with giddiness when something growls in response, echoing menacingly around us in six-track Dolby, leaping from speaker to speaker. “It's worse,” observes a shaken Han Solo. We burst into laughter). Apparently, however, to Lucas' mind, the movie was clunky, corny and far from perfect, and not nearly as real as the sprawling space opera in his own head. I think this is the big reason that fans take it so personally that Lucas keeps fiddling with the myth. Once upon a time, beyond all probability, it was just right; so Lucas' change of tack seems like a kind of betrayal, a denial of the original miracle. In 1977, the adventure was perfect, unique, stand-alone. It was simply, Star Wars. In 2007, the original adventure, now called Episode IV: A New Hope, sits embedded in the middle of a twisting, lumbering epic that has adopted the original no-nonsense name. It's a bad fit.

Don't get me wrong.
I actually enjoy the saga, flawed as it is. The creativity and sheer invention of Lucas and his team has never flagged, as far as I'm concerned, and the story is fairly satisfying overall, I think. It's grating in the details: leaden direction of some key dramatic scenes, cringeingly bad romantic dialogue, wrong-headed plot developments (midichlorians?) and wrong-headed characters (guess who). I follow the conventional wisdom that the three best episodes are The Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope, and Revenge of the Sith, in more or less that order. But I still believe that Star Wars, the original experience, is a separate entity. Even with the changes Lucas made to it, his supposed refinements (and I'm not even referrring here to the revised “Han Shot Second” scene), A New Hope, aka Star Wars, just does not flow properly with the rest of the saga. If one watches the series in the order Lucas intends, the first two-thirds of Episode IV essentially becomes an intermission; after the increasing tension and density of the first three episodes, A New Hope is jarringly sedate and simplistic, and there are a host of plot and character inconsistencies between Star Wars '77 and Star Wars, the Saga.

One senses that Lucas would just love to scrap the current Episode IV and start from scratch, updating the music themes and digitally replacing incogruous characters (the “Darth Vader Theme,” aka the Imperial March, is very obviously missing in Episode IV, and honestly, Obi-Wan Kenobi just cannot have aged that badly in twenty years, unless he did a lot of hard living down there on Tatooine; maybe he knows his way around that seedy little Mos Eisley cantina a little too well...) Despite all the vitriol directed at the prequels by the fanboys (just read the comment threads on Harry Knowles’ Ain't It Cool News site going back to 1999 and you will see the genesis of truly vicious Internet snark), I think the real seams are between A New Hope and the other five episodes, not between the "classic trilogy" and the prequels. The moment we step onto the larger emotional and narrative stage of The Empire Strikes Back, we're in a different work altogether.

A modest proposal: separate the twins.
restore the 1977 classic edition of Star Wars to its original glory and make it available as a separate disk in its own appropriate packaging, distinct from the six-episode saga; this would then allow Lucas to further refine Episode IV to his heart's content and integrate it completely with his bigger storyline; further gripes from the fanbase would be totally without merit at that point. George Lucas (and the fans) would finally have his New Hope and eat it, too.

Next: The Saga—— An Unprecedented Event in the History of Narrative (Really)

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Myth That Wouldn't Sit Still, Part 1

Compare the picture you just shot with your Sony Cybershot S650 to the one you took last week, and to the greenish Polaroid your aunt took at the wedding in 1971, then to the cracked and dog-eared sepia shot of your grandfather as an owl-eyed kid in knickers holding a blurry dog. The immediate sense you get is that human beings have finally figured out how to nail down a moment of crystal-clear reality in all its freckled, vein-eyed, nostril-haired glory without much fuss. That we finally live in an age of transparency, of clear-eyed honesty, and that our memories will no longer be tainted by the colors and textures of whatever medium was used to capture reality in the past. Yesterday will look like today will look like tomorrow in moments eternally frozen and available on FlickR.

So why is everyone pissed off at George Lucas
, one of the avowed masters of the digital age, for not being being able to keep his story straight? Is it Star Wars or is it Episode IV: A New Hope? Is Darth Vader the villain or the hero? And last but far from least: did Han Solo shoot first, or did Greedo? I'm sitting here in Warbucks sipping my coffee and typing this screed wishing I'd had the forethought to pick up a "Han Shot First" t-shirt to commemorate the date: it was thirty years ago today that a movie about flying hardware, flashing lights, bumbling robots and hammy humans came out of nowhere and changed, well, everything.

Most of the praise and criticism of the movie is centered on the way Lucas took some old Hollywood tropes and refreshed them just as they were on the verge of fading from collective memory. The young and inexperienced hero thrown into an overwhelming situation and seeing it through by tapping unsuspected reserves of valor, or fulfilling an unheard of destiny; the boy from the heartland achieving glory in a foreign land—— in a postwar, post-Vietnam era, this is powerful stuff. In commercial terms it trumped the work of the gritty, urban anti-Hollywood slice-of-lifers like Scorcese and Friedkin to usher in an era of suburban mall blockbusters. To many critics, Star Wars was regressive, sounding the death knell of smart, cynical, artful filmaking. What wasn't clear then is that Lucas unintentionally created the first mass media post-modern event, and alchemically changed our expectations of the future.

By overlapping past and future,
the alien and the intimately familiar, the endlessly derivative with the unprecedented, Lucas subverted slick Hollywood fantasy with a gritty realism to come. In presenting a bored and marginalized farmboy casually fiddling with gadgets and vehicles as cool as any in James Bond's arsenal, Lucas showed us the future. Our future. In 1977, we watched Luke whine about being in trouble for losing his uncle's droid as he scans the desert through his nifty hyperfunctional night-vision binoculars, and marveled at what he took for granted. And yet, how much niftier is the laptop you now browse the known universe with, even as you whine about work schedules and catching up with the laundry.

This same technology we now take for granted is making it possible for creative types like Lucas to endlessly re-create, to second-guess themselves. When the character Han Solo first entered the collective imagination, he was a scoundrel with a highly-developed urge for self-preservation, and that was a large part of his charm. When cornered in the notorious cantina by Jabba the Hutt's henchman Greedo, he weighed his chances against a pile of cash and pre-emptively shot Greedo from under the table. Naturally. We already knew the type: James Bond and Clint Eastwood's Man-With-No-Name shot bad guys (worse guys?) in cold blood all the time. It got them out of a jam. But when Lucas found he could expand his narrative canvas, i.e., when serial chapter became modern-day myth, he recast his tough-guy archetype as virtuous hero, ostensibly to be a role model for future generations, and revised the scene digitally so that Greedo shoots first and misses at point-blank range, only then to be fried by Han; the result is awkward-looking and just plain un-cinematic. So how ironic is it that boomer dads are putting aside the new-canon version in favor of the recently-issued-on-DVD original version, to show their kids the real Han Solo?

It's still a moral lesson:
"Look, son, the bad man wants to tell you a lie, but Dad remembers the truth! See? Han shot first. In self-defense, of course."

Next: That day in May, 1977.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Alas, Cutty Sark

We hardly knew ye. The famous clipper ship was undergoing extensive restoration when she was severely damaged by a suspicious fire today. Luckily, up to 50% of the ship is in storage, and so it may be salvageable. Today Hokum gives the old girl a heartfelt salute from the champagne-bottle's view. Make that the scotch whiskey bottle's view. What lines she had, and how she did ramble...

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Dangerous Gals, Coddled Kids: More Thoughts on The Dangerous Book for Boys

You would think that gender is a touchy subject in a household with an academically-trained feminist and a fairly unreconstructed 45-year-old boy. Well, not so much. Dee and I watch James Bond movies together. We may not be watching exactly the same movie (She: "Ugh. Okay, I get it. Smack, smack, smack. I hate these fight scenes— they just go on and on" ) but we both live for the gadgets and the stylish locales (I just double-checked, and she confirmed). The fact is, we are pretty evenly matched on the gender-assigned indulgences: I still troll eBay and Amazon for deals on pulp fiction, and she has a fetish for pink accessories. Our excuse is that we are post-modern, ironic urbanites but the reality is that we are relatively well-adjusted adults, each with a good a sense of humor and a dash of sentimentality.

I'd say most folks who contributed to Mother Talk's current Blog Book Tour are in that same category, judging from the overwhelmingly positive responses to The Dangerous Book for Boys. (See my own review posted below). Mothers seem to appreciate the constructive energy outlet the book offers for their sons and husbands, and they are enthralled by the book themselves. Kris at WonderMom wants to try her hand at being a WhizMom—— she's got a couple of years' head start on her five- and six-year-olds to learn some gadgetry from the book. Dani at Postcards from the Mothership ended up channeling her "inner-12-year-old boy," and Bethany at Mommy Writer Blog declares it to be the "KID BIBLE." Tellingly, it reminds her of the very things her father taught her when she was a little girl.

Here, I think is the crux of the matter: Dangerous is only a book for boys if by "boy" you mean any kid with heart and moxie. Fathers of past generations were conditioned to pass their moxie on to their sons, not to their daughters; they were content to let their daughters remain precious and mysterious, beyond their understanding and direct influence, except when there were no sons. Bethany and her sister, sure enough, had the Moxie bestowed upon them by their dad in the absence of brothers, which meant learning tree lore, and how to fish Brook Trout, Salmon, Pike, and Walleye, among other things.

In a similar vein, my own Dee, aka Deborah Siegel, recounts her experience as an only child in her essay “Triangulation: a Love Story” (from her anthology Only Child): how her father took her into the yard to watch electrical storms thundering in off Lake Michigan, and took her skiing down blizzard-swept slopes while they screamed at the top of their lungs. Believe you me, Dee still has Moxie to spare, which suits her bookish boyfriend just fine. She's become something more than a muse to me: she's also sideline coach and cheerleader, coaxing me onto ski lifts and saddles, prodding me to buy myself my first bicycle in a half a lifetime. When the time comes, I'll have no reason to leave any daughter of mine out of the boy's club. Hell, Dee will probably be the activities director!

Speaking of activities, I think one of the great boons of The Dangerous Book for Boys is that, by its very existence, it champions the right for kids to muse and ponder. Sure, set aside that Saturday afternoon to build a treehouse together... but for Pete's sake, let the kids alone to sit up there and veg (vedge?) out for a little while. To quote George Carlin, "Leave your kids the F__k alone! There's way too much structure!" Of course, he jokes about dumb kids doomed by Darwinian Natural Selection in the same skit, but he's only following Jonathan Swift's model: drop a pearl of wisdom into a keg of outrage. I'm sure my views will morph a bit once I have a child, but I do remember enough of my own childhood to know how much I valued the endless, featureless days of summer. Plenty of time to get in trouble, yes—— it was in the age before "playdates," and before the city put rubber mats in all the playgrounds. I once climbed the monkey bars unsupervised and dropped headfirst onto the bare asphalt. But reflexes honed by years of fending off neighborhood bullies (i.e., covering my head with my arms) served to save me from serious injury. I'm not sure you can pick up those reflexes from a Playstation or an Xbox. It's possible, I suppose.

"Dangerous" is a loaded term. So is "boy," and so is "girl," especially in relation to "dangerous." Parents are intrigued and disturbed by the emotions and associations around these terms that have been dredged to the surface by the popularity of this book. Here are a few final meandering thoughts on this: I don't think it is a coincidence that darkness has regained currency in children's literature and fantasy films lately. From Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to Revenge of the Sith to Bridge to Terabithia, danger is a palpable element. In the real world, crime levels may be down in the cities, but there's a war on—— kids nowadays can't be fooled. They know the world is a dangerous place. I don't believe it serves them well to be continually coddled and sheltered and hermetically sealed off from the world with helmets and shin guards. They need to know they can wield a sword or a light sabre to defend themselves against the Dark Side, or learn how to overcome obstacles, to swing over a chasm or a creek on a well-knotted rope, or simply to learn the magic needed to find one's way back home through a dark wood.

They need to find their own heart (and brain, and courage). Dorothy did, and she managed to find her way back to Kansas. Leslie Burke never came back from Terabithia, it's true, but she passed her heart, her Moxie, on to her best friend. And yes, Dorothy and Leslie were both girls. Amelia Earhart, Bessie Coleman, Beryl Markham, fearless adventurers all. So why The Dangerous Book for Boys? Because boys (and fathers) need to make believe, at least for a little while, that their secret is safe. Yet most kids know in their hearts the truth about Santa Claus long before the lie dies out in their minds. Boys will figure out the truth eventually.

Sea Leaves: The Cyanotypes of Anna Atkins

As I was researching the previous post and trolling the Internet for Victorian women explorers and/or naturalists, I recalled the Lady of the Algaes:

Anna Atkins (1799-1871) was a pioneer in the use of photography to document nature. In 1843 she published the scientific catalog Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, said to be the very first book of photographs. Her work manages to be intensely personal and stunningly beautiful, specimens of a time when science could seem as lyrical as poetry, although in Atkins' case some of this lyricism is arguably an accident of technique. The blue tint of her cyanotype impressions is a result of the chemical process she used, which was originated by Sir John Herschel, a friend of her father's. While she applied the technique as a more objective alternative to drawing from life, the results go beyond objective accuracy into the sublime. The dead specimens of algae, ghosts of light and nature, float against a virtual blue abyss in an ironic inversion of the romantic trope of pressing flowers in books to preserve them. In 2004 her work was featured in the exhibit Ocean Flowers: Impressions from Nature at the Drawing Center in New York City. The Center published a beautiful companion catalog by Catherine de Zegher, Carol Armstrong, Edward Eigen, Craigie Horsfield, Elaine Scarry, and Kathryn A. Tuma, which is, alas, currently out of print.

The reproductions above are from the first volume of Photographs of British Algae, and can be found on the New York Public Library Digital Gallery website.

The Once and Future Boy

The Dangerous Book for Boys, Conn Iggulden, Hal Iggulden.
Sometimes, despite my best efforts to the contrary, I find myself out of the loop on subjects of great importance. I surf and I browse; I peruse news sites and blogs and magazine stands and mega-bookstores, yet somehow or other I missed the last big peace demonstration, and worse, I missed the early word on the Iggulden brothers' wonderful Dangerous Book for Boys.

My partner Debbie Siegel (aka Girl w/Pen) has watched me struggle with the intent of this blog of mine over the past year or so, and has endured my droning on and on about the lost mysteries of boyhood and how kids these days are just so jaded; so when Mother Talk dedicated their second Blog Tour to said Dangerous Book she knew who to forward the email to. Of course, when I saw the cover design I knew I had to order it; when I unwrapped it I experienced a kind of Christmas morning giddiness.

Dangerous is a glaring anachronism: with its red clothbound covers and retro design circa 1910, it resembles some forgotten and miraculously preserved first edition of Frank L. Baum. No glossy dustjacket, no blurbs, no Oprah sticker (please, God, spare it the Oprah sticker), it exists outside of the moment, outside of media. Inside, there's no rhyme or reason—— just pure careening no-nonsense wonder and how-to. It reminds me a little of another recent anachronistic publishing phenomenon, Schott's various Miscellanies (and Almanacs and Concordances and whatever else in God's name Ben Schott's got coming down the pike). Like Schott's books it takes the randomness of web-surfing and formalizes it as a literary experience outside of the headlong rush of information familiar to Generation Y. It's apparent that The Dangerous Book for Boys has no beginning, middle or end. It is meant to be read and perused, like the World Book or the Encyclopedia Britannica, rather than scanned, tabbed and bookmarked.

Its contents have a distinctly Anglophile charm: segueing from stickball and rugby rules to Morse code and cloud formations, Dangerous seems intended for some unlikely jock-geek hybrid, equal parts introvert and extrovert. In fact, what with chapters on polar exploration, navigation, historic battles and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, some might argue that the Igguldens have compiled a kind of throwback primer for young male WASP imperialist-adventurers educated in the classics; indeed a great part of the book's appeal is its obstinately old-world presentation (the Seven Wonders are illustrated by what look like reproductions of Victorian postcards). The Age of Imperialism did coincide with the broader cultural impact of the Industrial Revolution, and so technology enabled not only global travel for the original tourist class, but also the wide dissemination of travel literature to a reading public, including the first generations of young armchair adventurers (boys and girls: remember lonely little Jane Eyre sitting cross-legged "like a Turk" on the window seat, browsing a natural history of the "bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland"). Some boys of those generations may have ended up becoming colonial administrators and big-game hunters, but other boys and girls became anthropologists and naturalists for the enlightenment of future generations.

Ultimately, what makes this treasure-trove of a book truly “dangerous” is the idea that a life of sensations and engagement with the world can dovetail with intellectual curiosity, and that any boy (or girl!) with a healthy interest in the world as seen on a map or from high up in a tree house might find a richer sense of place than in any gaming platform, or in a multitude of Facebooks.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

“Be My Pal” Update

Back in the time before the rains, I posted an admittedly rhetorical plea for charity. I’ve suddenly realized it’s time for an update: I now have my very own copy of
Little Nemo in Slumberland: So Many Splendid Sundays!, purchased for a reasonble price at the Strand. I have no idea if there are any left (this was a few months ago). Why don't you do yourself a favor and pay the old bargain book emporium a visit? And let me know if they've opened the café yet...

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Original Graphic Novelist

Ever since I was introduced to peacay's fantabulous BibliOdyssey I've wanted to do my own gallery thing. Well, due to fortuitous circumstances (to wit: a gift from my good friend M. Thibodeau and the source of these wondrous images) today's Hokum is a reasonable approximation.

This is a small selection of woodcuts by Lynd Kendall Ward (26 June 1905 – 28 June 1985) from his "novel in woodcuts" Mad Man's Drum, published in 1930 by Jonathan Cape Harrison Smith. Ward is known primarily for his stark wordless morality tales with hues of social conscience and Methodist justice, early precursors to today's graphic novels. I haven't yet had the chance to thoroughly "read" the book, but near as I can figure it's about a white man, possibly a slave trader, who kills an African man for his drum, and the disasters which befall him and others back home as a consequence.

What really strikes me about Ward's work is how reminiscent they are of the expressionistic cinema of his day: Mad Man's Drum is essentially a silent horror film in the vein of F.W. Murnau and Fritz Lang.

The complete Mad Man's Drum can be found online here, at a lower resolution. Lynd Ward's other woodcut novels are:
God's Man (1929)
Wild Pilgrimage (1932)
Prelude to a Million Years (1933)
Song Without Words (1936)
Vertigo (1937)

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

American Journalism: Off the Monitor, In D.C.’s Face

(Digital Media Fatigue Syndrome: How to Deal, Part 2)

Whether it's intended as a thumb in the President's eye or a bracing slap to the collective face of a dishevelled and discredited Wahington, D.C. press corps
, the new Newseum building currently going up on Pennsylvania Avenue and scheduled to open on October 15th is certainly not just a stodgy mausoleum for journalism past. Its double-edged message is up front and center: a sleek modern facade of glass framed in concrete (evoking an enormous computer monitor), coupled with the fourth estate's historic anchor, the First Amendment, set in a huge slab of stone hovering over the heads of all passersby. Inside will be interactive exhibits galore and a media wall which will be visible from the street. And in a concession to the importance of lifestyle these days, the luxurious Newseum Residences will also be part of the scene. (Check out the views!)

The high-tech sheen is to be expected, as revered news orgs across the country scramble to keep profitable and relevant in the high-volume, byte-sized Internet Age. In a particularly canny move, however, the Newseum will double as a repository of historic artifacts, ranging from the gee-whiz of Edward R. Murrows' microphone (top, left) to the sobering souvenirs of the ongoing calamity, such as bullet-ridden news vans and murdered newsman Daniel Pearl's laptop. As a D.C. experience for young and old, the Newseum will fall somewhere between the exhileration of the Air and Space Museum and the sombre hush of the Holocaust Memorial.

As I opined in a previous post, it's ever more important to look away from the phosphene stream once in a while and replenish our ties with unmediated, concrete reality, whether current or historic; especially as the distinction between conscientiously delivered news and passively consumed and processed information begins to blur. One would hope that to gaze upon Murrow's vintage microphone is to be struck not only by the man's lingering physical presence but by the personal conviction that proved more powerful on the airwaves of his day than the market-tested banalities of dozen HD-enhanced, silver-coiffed anchors in post 9/11 America.

From Menlo Park to Linkin Park

With apologies to and in appreciation of Tommy Alva...

(The "father of Jazz," trumpet king Buddy Bolden of New Orleans, is said to have cut an Edison cylinder. If so, it has never been found, and it is unquestionably the Holy Grail of Jazz.)