So I have to tell you about this book:
The Lost Books of the Odyssey manages a pretty impossible mix; somehow, it’s both mathematically precise and completely wacky. Like, you start reading it and, especially if you know its reputation (a combinatorial exploration/explosion of the classic myth, written by a computer scientist, etc.) you expect this cold, hard Borgesian puzzle-box. And the book does, in face, tickle your brain in that way, and with no word wasted in the process… but then it also surprises you with warmth, and real sadness, and a terrific storyteller’s voice all throughout. It’s one of my absolute favorites of the past few years.
Zachary Mason is therefore predictably fascinating over on BLDGBLOG, especially with an interviewer as wide-ranging as Geoff Manaugh. I could blockquote the whole thing, but this bit in particular really grabbed me:
Mason: It sounds like you’re reacting to my preoccupation with what I might call the primes of the story. There are aspects of the Odyssey that seem essential, and these are few in number, just a handful of images. There’s a man lost at sea, an interminable war a long way behind him, and a home that’s infinitely desirable and infinitely far away. There’s the man-eating ogre in his cave; there are the Sirens with their irresistible song; there’s the certain misery of Scylla and Charybdis.
I feel like these images are responsible for the enduring power of the story, and its survival, more than the particular details of, say, dialogue among the suitors, or what have you. I wanted to work directly with these primes, to present them in as powerful and stripped-down a way as possible, and to explore how they could interact, and how they could combine to make new forms. I suppose this kind of minimalist, reductive aesthetic does has a mathematical flavor.
There are at least two things to love there:
First, “the primes of the story.” What a great, evocative phrase—I’m going to appropriate it. Sure sure, they go by other names: themes, archetypes, whatever. But primes! Who wouldn’t want their story to have primes? Who wouldn’t want to build something from them?
Second, the focus on durable imagery. When I think back to the books I’ve read over the past few years, I don’t really remember a lot of plot details—what happened when and to who. Instead, I remember images. From Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, it’s a boarding-school student walking across Antarctica, burning like a star. From Paolo Bacigalupi’s Windup Girl, it’s an agent of agribusiness combing far-off farmer’s markets. From Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn, it’s a helicopter swooping in low, trying to land in the fog. (Lots more from that book, actually—Matterhorn was jam-packed with images.)
So increasingly, this is how I judge a book: does it leave me with at least one truly durable image? Is there one moment I can see again in sharp detail two months or two years later? If so, I call that success. As Zachary Mason says: in the long run, as stories get told and re-told in different languages and different formats, it’s probably the images that keep a story alive. It’s probably the images that last.
Today Last week, Marc Ambinder reached the end of his tenure as a politics blogger for the Atlantic, and toasted the event with a thoughtful post on the nature of blogging. The central nugget:
Really good print journalism is ego-free. By that I do not mean that the writer has no skin in the game, or that the writer lacks a perspective, or even that the writer does not write from a perspective. What I mean is that the writer is able to let the story and the reporting process, to the highest possible extent, unfold without a reporter’s insecurities or parochial concerns intervening. Blogging is an ego-intensive process. Even in straight news stories, the format always requires you to put yourself into narrative. You are expected to not only have a point of view and reveal it, but be confident that it is the correct point of view. There is nothing wrong with this. As much as a writer can fabricate a detachment, or a “view from nowhere,” as Jay Rosen has put it, the writer can also also fabricate a view from somewhere. You can’t really be a reporter without it. I don’t care whether people know how I feel about particular political issues; it’s no secret where I stand on gay marriage, or on the science of climate change, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. What I hope I will find refreshing about the change of formats is that I will no longer be compelled to turn every piece of prose into a personal, conclusive argument, to try and fit it into a coherent framework that belongs to a web-based personality called “Marc Ambinder” that people read because it’s “Marc Ambinder,” rather than because it’s good or interesting.
My esteemed coblogger tweeted some terrific observations about Ambinder’s post:
I expect when Tim has more than 140 characters, he’ll nod to the fact that The Atlantic’s website actually encompasses many different ideas of what blogging means — from Andrew Sullivan’s flood of commentless links and reader emails to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ rollicking salons to Ambinder’s own sparsely-linked analyses. And beyond the bounds of the Atlantic there are so many other ideas, as many types of blogs as there are types of books, and maybe more — Waiter Rant to Romenesko to Muslims Wearing Things to this dude’s LiveJournal to BLDGBLOG.
That Ambinder’s essay doesn’t really acknowledge this — that it seems so curiously essentialist about a format that’s engendered so much diversity — disappoints me, because he’s such a thoughtful, subtle writer at his best. His sudden swerve into the passive voice — “You are expected to not only have a point of view” — briefly made me worry that he intends to become one of those print journalists who uses the cloak of institutional voice to write weaselly ridiculous phrases such as “Questions are being raised.”
It puzzles me that the same fellow who wrote that “a good story demolishes counterarguments” would casually drop the line, “Really good print journalism is ego-free.” “What I mean,” Ambinder says, “is that the writer is able to let the story and the reporting process, to the highest possible extent, unfold without a reporter’s insecurities or parochial concerns intervening.” I think I know what type of long-form journalism he’s referring to — there’s a wonderful genre of stories that make their case with a simple, sequential presentation of fact after unadorned fact. The Looming Tower. The Problem from Hell. David Grann’s stunning “Trial by Fire” in the New Yorker.
But there’s an equally excellent genre of journalism that foregrounds the author’s curiosities, concerns and assumptions — James Fallows’ immortal foretelling of the Iraq War, Atul Gawande’s investigation of expenditures in health care. This is ego-driven reporting, in the best possible way. For every Problem from Hell, there’s another Omnivore’s Dilemma. Far from demolishing counterarguments, Ambinder’s mention of “ego-free journalism” instantly summons to mind its opposite.
Likewise, his contention that “blogging is an ego-intensive process” has to grapple with the fact that some of the best blogging is just the reverse. It doesn’t square with examples such as Jim Romenesko, whose art is meticulously effacing himself from the world he covers, leaving a digest rich with voice and judgment so veiled you barely even notice someone’s behind it. In fact, contra Ambinder, I’ve found that one of the most difficult types of blogging to teach traditional reporters is this very trick of being a listener and reader first, suppressing the impulse to develop your own take until you’ve surveyed others and brought the best of them to your crowd. Devoid as it is of links, non-Web journalism often fosters a pride of ownership that can become insidious — a constant race to generate information that might not actually help us understand the world any better, but is (1) new and (2) yours. Unchecked, that leads inevitably to this.
In just the way Marc Ambinder’s post wasn’t necessarily an attack on blogging, this isn’t necessarily a defense of it, or an attack on traditional journalism. If Ambinder recast his musings on blogging in a slightly different way, I’d actually agree with him wholeheartedly. If, as I’ve been arguing in this post, the form is flexible enough to encompass so many approaches, that means every choice contributes to a blog’s unique identity. Perhaps more than any other publishing/broadcasting format, a blog is a manifestation of the choices and idiosyncrasies of its authors.
And I think this is what Ambinder’s experience reflects — his choices and his idiosyncrasies. He chose to blog about national politics — an extraordinarily crowded (and particularly solipsistic) field. To distinguish himself from the crowd, he chose to craft a persona known for its canny insider’s pose and behind-the-scenes insights. I think it was a terrific choice; I’ve enjoyed his Atlantic writing a lot. But there’s little essential about the format that compelled him to this choice.
The title of this post is, of course, facetious. (Although I’d kind of love it if the pointless “Who’s a journalist” debates gave way to pointless “Who’s a blogger” ones.) Of course Marc Ambinder was a blogger — he tended to a series of posts displayed on the Web in reverse-chronological order. Beyond that, there are common patterns and proven techniques, but very few rules. Print imposes more constraints, but some folks find a sort of freedom in that. I hope Marc Ambinder does, and I hope to read the product.
BLDGBLOG seriously lives 5–10 years in the future, and 5–10 degrees deflected over into a parallel dimension. I mean that as a high compliment. He’s running this course at Columbia this spring:
The purpose of this studio is to look at naturally occurring processes and forms–specifically, glaciers, islands, and storms–and to ask how these might be subject to architectural re-design. We will begin our investigations by looking at three specific case-studies, including the practical techniques and concerns behind each. This research will then serve as the basis from which studio participants will create original glacier/island/storm design proposals.
This is basically Hogwarts for science, technology and architecture nerds. Amazing!
Geoff Manaugh at Bldgblog argues that Die Hard is “one of the best architectural films of the past 25 years.” After a short but revealing look at the urban tactics of Israeli soldiers, he lays out his case:
Die Hard asks naive but powerful questions: If you have to get from A to B—that is, from the 31st floor to the lobby, or from the 26th floor to the roof—why not blast, carve, shoot, lockpick, and climb your way there, hitchhiking rides atop elevator cars and meandering through the labyrinthine, previously unexposed back-corridors of the built environment?
Why not personally infest the spaces around you?
The only problem, Manaugh notes, is that Die Hard’s sequels didn’t live up to the promise of the original — not just as a well-played action movie, but in continuing this exploration of urban space. “An alternative-history plot for a much better Die Hard 2 could thus perhaps include a scene in which the rescuing squad of John McClane-led police officers does not even know what building they are in, a suitably bewildering encapsulation of this method of moving undetected through the city… ‘Walking through walls’ thus becomes a kind of militarized parkour.”
I think Manaugh (like most fans) is a little too hard on the Die Hard franchise here, particularly Die Hard: With A Vengeance, which actually did try to make the McClane magic work across NYC. What’s motoring across Central Park (sending picnicers scrambling) or driving along the NYC aqueduct other than extending this “move at at all costs” to the city? That movie’s fine; people just didn’t like the title.
Manaugh points out a number of other action films — say, The Bourne Ultimatum — pick up this challenge. But in a way, the real sequel to Die Hard was The Fugitive. I caught The Fugitive on cable recently, and was surprised how enjoyable it is. Watch that movie again, and watch how Harrison Ford as Dr Richard Kimble pulls every McClane trick and uses the entire city of Chicago in the second half of the film — hospitals, jails, underpasses, elevated trains, parades — impersonating one character after another at the margins of the city’s infrastructure, simultaneously fleeing capture and performing his own investigation. It’s even more impressive, in some ways, because Kimble almost never has a gun, and can’t pull off the same physical acrobatics as an NYC cop who’s probably 10–15 years younger.
It’s actually really good. And Chicago looks great in that movie; totally like itself.
Darkness at night is such an obvious and easily-neglected thing, probably because it’s no longer a problem. Our cities, even our houses, are made safe and accessible by electric light (and before that, gas lamps, candles, etc.).
But remember your experience of night as a child, the confounding absoluteness of darkness, and you begin to understand a fraction of what night was like prior to modern conveniences. The conquering of night might be the greatest event that wasn’t one in human history, certainly of the past 200 years — right up there with the massive declines in infant/mother death in childbirth or the emergence of professional sports.
Geoff Managh at BLDGBLOG lays it down with a tidy piece of paleoblogging by proxy:
Writing about the human experience of night before electricity, A. Roger Ekirch points out that almost all internal architectural environments took on a murky, otherworldy lack of detail after the sun had gone down. It was not uncommon to find oneself in a room that was both spatially unfamiliar and even possibly dangerous; to avoid damage to physical property as well as personal injury to oneself, several easy techniques of architectural self-location would be required.
Citing Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s book Émile, Ekirch suggests that echolocation was one of the best methods: a portable, sonic tool for finding your way through unfamiliar towns or buildings. And it could all be as simple as clapping. From Émile: “You will perceive by the resonance of the place whether the area is large or small, whether you are in the middle or in a corner.” You could then move about that space with a knowledge, however vague, of your surroundings, avoiding the painful edge where space gives way to object. And if you get lost, you can simply clap again.
Managh also thrills at Ekirch’s other discovery: “Entire, community-wide children’s games were also devised so that everyone growing up in a village could become intimately familiar with the local landscape.” Not only would you know your house in the dark, you would learn to know the architecture of your entire town. Managh asks:
But this idea, so incredibly basic, that children’s games could actually function as pedagogic tools—immersive geographic lessons—so that kids might learn how to prepare for the coming night, is an amazing one, and I have to wonder what games today might serve a similar function. Earthquake-preparedness drills?
Having spent most of the morning singing songs like “clean it up, clean it up, pick up the trash now” and “It’s more fun to share, it’s more fun to share,” I don’t see kids’ games as pedagogic tools as such a leap, although the collectivity of the game and the bleakness of the intent give me a chill. “If the French come to try to burn this village at night, the children must know exactly where they are before they begin to run.” Cold-blooded! They probably all learned songs about how kitchen knives and pitchforks could be used against an enemy, too. “Every tool can kill, every tool can kill…”
It’s probably also a good idea, if you’ve got kids, to teach them a thing or two about their neighborhoods. Not to get all grumpy and old, but in the absence of the random-packs-of-children-roaming-the-town-alone parenting style I grew up with, kids are probably not picking up the landmarks by osmosis. What will they do when the zombies attack? Use GPS? Call a cab?