Monday, November 30, 2009

Paragraph of the Week

Sorry for the one day delay. Long weekends are strangely disorienting. Without further ado, here's a paragraph for you, from Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors' introduction to A New Literary History of America:

"Made in America"--America, made. In many ways, the story that comes together in the pieces of this book is that of people taking up the two elemental American fables--the fable of discovery and the fable of founding--and making their own versions: their own versions of the fables, which is to say their own version of America itself. Who knows if it is John F. Kennedy delivering his Inaugural Address or Jay Gatsby throwing one more party who is more truly invoking John Wintrhop's "A Model of Christian Charity" from three centuries before? Is it Frederick Douglass or Hank Williams who has the most to tell us, not to mention Jefferson's ghost, about the real meaning of the Declaration of Independence? Doesn't Emily Dickinson, within her own Amherst walls, invent as complete a nation--loose in the wilderness in flight from all forms of restraint, be they those of God or man--as Ahab on the quarterdeck or Lincoln at the East Face of the Capitol?

Friday, November 27, 2009

Every Object Tells a Story

The first class I ever took in college was called American Autobiography. The secret to writing college-level papers on autobiographies, it turns out, is to realize that memoirists do more than just write down the things that happen to them. There is always both an agenda and a designer. Here's an excerpt from a paper written for that class:
Franklin describes in great detail his initial experiences in Philadelphia. He was dressed in his work uniform, and was weary from a long voyage. He relates that "I was dirty from my journey; my pockets were stuffed out with shirts and stockings; I knew no soul, nor where to look for lodging" (pg 92). He made his way to a bakery in order to purchase bread with what little money he had. Even such a simple task was difficult in an unfamiliar setting. A difference in dialect prevented him from effectively communication to the baker which type of bread he preferred. Eventually he managed to purchase "three great puffy rolls" (pg. 93) but was forced to meander down the street "with a roll under each arm and eating the other" (pg. 93). He admits that made "a most awkward, ridiculous appearance" (pg. 93).
Why does good ol' Ben Franklin go through such length to describe this seemingly embarrassing and un-educational experience? He confesses that "I have been the more particular in this description of my journey, and shall be so of my entry into that city, that you may in your mind compare such unlikely beginnings with the figure I have since made there." Aha. Franklin is nice enough to explain his agenda for the inclusion of this particular passage. But even if the memoirist declines to share her motivation, don't doubt for a second that she has one. Said James Young, a historian of memorials, "The motives of memory are never pure."

I just watched an hour-long version on PBS of a slightly longer documentary called Objectified, directed by Gary Hustwit. Objects, it would seem, are a whole lot like autobiographies: the really good ones make you forget that they were designed at all. But if we can look and think again about our objects we'll realize that someone (hopefully) thought long and hard about how our objects work and look. The film includes a great interview with Jonathan Ive, a designer at Apple, who explained the thinking behind the little sleep indicator light on my MacBook. It should do its job, he explained, but then it should disappear when it no longer needs to indicate anything. And its cool to see how he accomplished that: my 18-month old laptop's sleep indicator light is still visible when the computer is not sleeping; but the latest MacBook iteration features an indicator light that just plain disappears when not in use.

That's just one example of how maybe the least significant feature of one product is the result of deep thought and design. The movie is great in all types of ways, especially if you're interested in chair design (designers, apparently, love talking about chairs), why form no longer follows function, how designers are starting to think about issues of sustainability, and attempting to bring a fresh perspective to all the things that fill our world.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Changing Reader

As I mentioned briefly last week, I spent Friday at the first ever Footnotes conference, subtitled thus: New Directions in David Foster Wallace Studies. If you're interested, you can read what Twitter (or, mostly me) thought of the conference. And if you're at all interested, you should check out Nick's recap on The Howling Fantods!, which is way more thorough and informed than any review attempted by me could hope to be. But I do want to elaborate on one point that seemed to recur throughout the conference: readers, as "consumers" of media, have changed as much as, if not more than, media in the last 30-40 years. This is true, I posit, even for forms that have been around all those years, namely, fiction and television/film.

The ways in which postmodern literature and film differ from their predecessors is fairly well established. There is no shortage of information on these changes on your friendly neighborhood internet, but since I've already linked to this once before, here's The L.A. Times' Jacket Copy blog's list of postmodern attributes. But perhaps not quite as developed is a study of how readers and film-watchers have changed over that same time period.

Consider, for example, something as simple as establishing shots on television. If you watch something as recent as Seinfeld, you'll notice the preponderance of establishing shots. The exterior of Jerry's apartment, the diner: these are some of the show's most iconic images. Compare that to "Souvenir," the eighth episode of the third season of Mad Men. If you haven't seen it, here's Alan Sepinwall on the cinematography of this episode (sans significant spoilers):

Included in the stylistic template of "Mad Men" is a reluctance to use establishing shots. Though we occasionally see the outside of the Sterling Cooper building, most scenes don't get any kind of transitional image to tell you, "Okay, now we're moving from here to here" or "Okay, we're back here on the following morning." It's not always that noticeable because the show does such long scenes, but there were several sequences in "Souvenir" where we just followed either Betty or Pete throughout their day, bam-bam-bam - no establishing shots, no dissolves or other obvious transitions, just one quick cut after another of their frustrated, empty lives.

I'm not saying that a lack of establishing shots is postmodern or that Mad Men is postmodern because it lacks establishing shots. But, in a way, this episode only works for sophisticated TV viewers who can follow extremely quick cut jumps, a skill which may require having watched countless hours of television to understand the conventions of the medium.

So what similar examples are true of readers? We may be more distrustful of narrators than readers of forty years ago. This questioning of authority is connected with the fact that, to paraphrase DFW, we're been marketed to very effectively for the entirety of our lives. Which came first? Authors going out of their way to make narrators inherently distrustful or readers learning not to take the written word at face value?

And since this post was inspired by a conference called Footnotes, let's think about footnotes. Reading used to be a basically linear activity. Except for reference books, you started reading on the first page and kept going until the end. Unless, of course, the author incorporated footnotes and endnotes, like DFW did, in a conscious effort to disrupt the narrative flow. But the way we read on the internet is unrestricted and deviating. I click from one page to another, with half a dozen tabs open at once. I do most of my reading on devices that can perform a multitude of tasks. It's surprisingly rare that I read one thing at a time, without distractions. Blog posts and, especially, Twitter seem to cater to this limited attention span reading environment. How will our reading expectations affect contemporary and future literature?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Paragraph of the Week

The New Yorker, Nov. 23, 2009. Adam Gopnik, "What's the Recipe?"

The woman who reads the fashion magazines isn't passively imaging the act of having; she's actively imagining the act of shopping. (And distantly imagining the act of wearing.) She turns down pages not because she wants to look again but because, for that moment, she really intends to buy that--for a decisive moment she did buy it, even if she knows she never will. Reading recipe books is an active practice too, even if all the action takes place in your mind. We reanimate our passions by imagining the possibilities, and the act of wanting ends up mattering more than the fact of getting. It's not the false hope that it will turn out right that makes us go on with our reading but our being resigned to the knowledge that it won't ever, quite.

Thursday, November 19, 2009


I have some longer posts planned (including one about reading on an iPhone) but for your more immediate The Daily Snowman fix, follow me on Twitter to read about the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic from Madison Square Garden tonight and a conference titled Footnotes: New Directions in David Foster Wallace Studies tomorrow morning.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Paragraph of the Week

I would like to try to share with you, every Sunday, the best paragraph I've read in the week preceding the particular Sunday in question. Our inaugural entry is from Jonathan Franzen's personal history, The Discomfort Zone:

Scott McCloud, in his cartoon treatise Understanding Comics, argues that the image you have of yourself when you're conversing is very different from your image of the person you're conversing with. You interlocutor may produce universal smiles and universal frowns, and they may help you to identify with him emotionally, but he also has a very particular nose and particular skin and particular hair that continually remind you that he's an Other. The image you have of your own face, by contrast, is highly cartoonish. When you feel yourself smile, you imagine a cartoon of smiling, not the complete skin-and-nose-and-hair package. It's precisely the simplicity and universality of cartoon faces, the absence of Otherly particulars, that invite us to love them as we love ourselves. The most widely loved (and profitable) faces in the modern world tend to be exceptionally basic and abstract cartoons: Mickey Mouse, the Simpsons, Tintin, and--simplest of all, barely more than a circle, two dots, and a horizontal line--Charlie Brown.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Judging Books By Their Covers

After determining through trial and error that seemingly every movie even remotely worth seeing in NYC was sold out, I stopped by a local neighborhood Barnes & Noble retail store. I collected about half a dozen books to purchase, carried them all over the shop, and settled on three that I would take home. (I sometimes feel bad buying new books because I usually have a healthy stack of books that I have not yet read. Including last night's troika, I now count ten: six novels, two memoirs, one short story collection, and one anthology. I justified the new three by their official B&N Bargain Priced stickers.)

In between the collection of six books and the selection of three, a small end-of-aisle section caught my eye. These books all belonged to a series called Penguin Classic Deluxe Editions, and deluxe they are. In addition to the jagged page construction, these books also include French flaps. But by far the coolest thing about these titles is the cover illustration.

Here's one as an example, drawn by Ruben Toledo, an artist who works most regularly in fashion.

I love the extension of the scarlet theme to the Prynnes' hair color.

It's not quite my favorite book cover ever, but this--and two others that Toledo designed, in addition to the other titles of the series--do a great job at making a classic more accessible. Toledo, in fact, identifies this as the goal of his project:
My only command from Penguin was to make art that would make youngsters want to read — to introduce these stories to a new public no matter what age. That’s why I think the fact that I had never read them was an asset, [combined with] the fact that they are all period stories, clearly set in another time and ruled by the mode of their time in history, yet are totally relevant to this Twitter world we live in.
I like how Twitter now defines our era. But besides for that, I'd say that Toledo succeeds.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

This Kid Loves Basketball

And spelling his last name and having fun and playing defense and making shots from right there and parks near his house and swings and basketball.

Via @jeskeets