Briefly Noted

Things Read, Seen or Heard Elsewhere

Charlie Mackesy's illustrated book explores love, fear, acceptance and belonging. It's a perfect anecdote for our anxious age.

The world is loud.

Our media is loud. Our entertainment is loud. Our environment is loud. Our politics measure on a scale of one-to-Trump with rageclicks in between.

Think, then, of an escape that’s quiet like falling snow.

My daughter introduced me to a book like this. She’s two. Her daycare gave it to us when her sister was hospitalized. It’s a fairly big book with somewhat abstract line drawing and aphoristic writing. We put it on a shelf thinking she might be ready for it a few years down the road. But she found it and has me read it to her most days of the week. Here’s a typical page.

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

It’s a sweet book. If it existed a few years ago, my cynicism would have discarded it. Now that I’m old(er) with two children, and the older curls up in my lap when I read to her, it hits me in the feels.

Here’s the beginning of a theme that runs for a few pages.

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

Charlie Mackesy’s The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse is an exceptionally gentle book for an exceptionally loud age. Its quiet writing follows four slightly bemused characters as they explore love, fear, acceptance and belonging.

It’s also amusing in its hushed asides.

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

There’s a generosity here that I haven’t come across in a long time. If you find life chaotic, consider giving it a read.

Consider too, reading it with someone, awkward as that may be. A two-year-old is good company. So too a twenty-two or eight-two-year-old.

In a world that’s angry and shouty – in a world where there is so much to be angry and shouty about – this book provides a few moments of quiet reflection that lets us breathe again.

That’s the quiet this book speaks.

An Awkward Transition

I write this as a Covid outbreak makes its way through the Trump White House, as the country still doesn’t have a handle on the coronavirus, as millions are laid off from jobs that aren’t coming back, as an election looms a few weeks off, as protests continue around the country, as 2020 continues to rear its ugly head.

I write from a little corner in my unfinished basement. I set this up as my office seven months ago when the coronavirus shut the world down. Far as I can tell, it will probably still be my office seven months from now. The best I can say about it is that I can hear my daughters through the ceiling; and if I want to take a break during the day, I can step outside and pick weeds which – if you haven’t given it a try – is actually kind of calming.

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

My family lives in Rhode Island’s rural west. We moved here last winter from New York City, settling in about a week before sheltering in place began.

We don’t necessarily experience the national drama in our neck of the woods. Instead, we read and watch from afar as the country stumbles along in what, hopefully, is the final throes of whatever it is you want to call these last number of years. Let our national body give a final spasm to shake its fever and then let’s get better, together. That’s hoping for the best, at least.

That’s not to say what happens elsewhere doesn’t happen here. After closing for the spring and summer, the historic inn down the street finally shut down. So too the local fabric store. I bump into my neighbors while doing yard work. They too are furloughed, or somewhat working from home, or wondering what comes next, and tracking whether their kids will be in school, out of school, or some combination of the two.

Some yards have Trump signs. Some go for Biden. A conspicuous majority have neither but instead post placards supporting favored candidates in our local races. They’re tired, I think, and don’t want to be hassled for signaling their intent on a national scale. It’s all just… too much. At least that’s what I think I think.

A small ice cream shop on the corner of a modest Main Street a few towns over shut down for the summer. They tired of the righteous refusing to abide by social distancing and mask wearing when placing orders for their cones. The final straw came when two grown men harassed teenage servers for asking them to follow store rules. Freedom, as we’ve seen expressed throughout the country, brought to us by aggrieved Kens and performative Karens.

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

I wonder whether the social and economic impact of these small town examples resonate further than the vast scale of shutdowns and closures we’re seeing in places like New York City. Instinctually, I hypothesize yes.

When there are only a few things of this and that, and you take some away, you’re removing a large percentage of what didn’t exist in large numbers in the first place. Out here in the country, there aren’t many alternatives once something is gone. Then again, city business are shuttering at scale and the city is a much less forgiving place.

I also wonder what seven and ten and fifteen-year-olds think of all this. Kids old enough to have various senses of what’s going on be it coronavirus or the protests and counter protests surrounding social justice, police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. I wonder what they think of Trump and his voting conspiracies that darken the upcoming election, threaten our sense of democracy and give pause to any hope that we might just yet make it out of all this.

Do they even think of the upcoming election? What do they think of the actors playing out the drama? Do they think about what America is, or was, before all this. “All this,” after all, is their normal. Depending on their age, there’s little – if any – point of reference to before times. Everything that is, just is. That’s the way it is, and was, far as they mostly know. When, I wonder, will those of us older think the same.

And, finally, I think of how an election fatalism spawned by the president’s ongoing assault on mail-in voting now spreads through the country. We collectively know a shit show awaits us. We bide our time. We listen to anger. We rageclick. We doomscroll. We rinse. We repeat.

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

It reminds me a bit of the lead-up to the Iraq war under president Bush. Then too we had an administration warping reality, flooding the field with fictions and alternative facts that required those opposing them to prove impossible negatives. Prove there are no weapons of mass destruction. Prove that voter fraud won’t take place.

The only real difference is the speed of the media apparatus churning all this. Back then it was a credulous media backstopped by Fox News, talk radio, influential blogs and email threads. It all felt fairly instant but you could still sneak a few hours of sobriety into your headspace.

Now, social media kindles animosities by the minute, conspirators thrill when the Fox constant launders their latest misinformation, and networks of second and third tier actors eagerly amplify it all for a man hermetically sealed off from humanity but all too ready to infuse his invective back into the system. It’s a feedback loop, perfected.

The rest of “normal” media is more skeptical of what’s happening now than what happened then. Unfortunately, they aren’t built for times like these. Their tools and operational standards prevent them from calling crackpot ideas and actual crackpots by name. They’re either overwhelmed by the volume or frame what’s happening as differences of opinion.

While there is no evidence of widespread voter fraud, they report, some believe differently. And on they go, amplifying nonsense under the distant gaze of an objectified journalistic objectivity until the nonsense becomes a reality that the rest of us have to deal with.

Both sides of the story need be told, they tell us. Besides, he’s the president, they tell us.

Yes, but he’s a crackpot with years of receipts to demonstrate the point.

The mind races. We could go on. This is the bane of our current American age. The mind can always race because we can always go on.

Lucky are those living in saner worlds where media and politics isn’t so loud, where the stakes aren’t so high. Lucky are those living in stable, functioning countries. We once thought we were among you.

Which makes The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse just a little more important than it otherwise may be. It’s a book that gives us 30 minutes of sanity in an otherwise insane world. This quiet shouldn’t be taken for granted. It’s a generous gift for the anxious among us. And who among us isn’t anxious these days?

Page from Charlie Mackesy's The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse
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We love books but there’ve been too many for about 500 years now.

Over at The New Republic, William Giraldi explains why both readers and writers need books:

For many of us, our book collections are, in at least one major way, tantamount to our children—they are manifestations of our identity, embodiments of our selfhood; they are a dynamic interior heftily externalized, a sensibility, a worldview defined and objectified. For readers, what they read is where they’ve been, and their collections are evidence of the trek. For writers, the personal library is the toolbox which contains the day’s necessary implements of construction—there’s no such thing as a skillful writer who is not also a dedicated reader—as well as a towering reminder of the task at hand: to build something worthy of being bound and occupying a space on those shelves, on all shelves. The personal library also heaves in reproach each time you’re tempted to grab the laptop and gypsy from one half-witted Web page to another. If you aren’t suspicious of a writer who isn’t a bibliophile, you should be.

But it’s not just books we need, says Giraldi, we need physical books that we can touch and smell. He doesn’t say this as a technophobe, and he doesn’t lay claim to various studies that say we absorb and understand more from the physical page than the digital screen. Instead, Giraldi argues, “like so many literary points worth emphasizing, [this] is an aesthetic one — books are beautiful.”

There’s something, he suggests, in sitting among your collection that inspires. Giraldi quotes Sven Birkerts: “Just to see my books, to note their presence, their proximity to other books, fills me with a sense of futurity.”

But what if there are simply too many books these days? Forget digitization and the volumes previously out of print but now available. This is a problem that dates back to the 15th century when the printing press was in full swing and 20 million books were printed in Europe.

We live – and have lived – in a world of “overproduction,” argues Tim Parks in the New York Review of Books.

Just when we were already overwhelmed with paper books, often setting them aside after only a few pages in anxious search of something more satisfying, along came the Internet and the e-book so that, wonderfully, we now have access to hundreds of thousands of contemporary novels and poems from this very space into which I am writing.

Inevitably, this tends to diminish the seriousness with which I approach any particular book. Certainly the notion that these works could ever be arranged in any satisfactory order, or that any credible canon will ever emerge, is gone forever. I’m disoriented and don’t expect things to be otherwise any time soon.

Disorientation, an inability to create a canon, cultural critics would call that a decentralization — or disintermediation —of authority. A subset of them would argue this is a good thing and that we live in an age of cultural negotiation.

But if there are too many books, maybe we shouldn’t read them at all. Maybe it’s easier – perhaps better – to just read reviews and get the gist.

“[W]e’ve always been shallow readers,” writes Noah Berlatsky and we shouldn’t fret that our digital screens amplify that. Our best way forward is to skim through writing about writing “and have some idea about it.”

And here’s where the Internet may truly become a boon for culture. Where else are you constantly encouraged, and even required, to talk creatively and endlessly about works you have not really read, and things you know little about?

For Berlatsky, books are a “cultural network” where it’s more important to know what a book’s generally about and how it relates to others “than to know exactly what’s in that one book in particular.”

Or, as Pierre Bayard, author of How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, puts it, “Being cultivated is a matter not of having read any book in particular, but of being able to find your bearings within books as a system.”

Harsh, for the book lover, to be sure. Harsh for the author too.

The book here becomes a mere data point on a larger system and understood in aggregate. It becomes, in a sense, mere metadata. Or, in a world of media everywhere, where we have what seems like infinite choice over both form and content, the book is simply being relegated to one of many choices.

Clay Shirky alluded to this a few years back:

“Having lost its actual centrality some time ago, the literary world is now losing its normative hold on culture as well. The threat isn’t that people will stop reading War and Peace…. The threat is that people will stop genuflecting to the idea of reading War and Peace.

Again, decentralization, disintermediation and cultural negotiation. This time not within a set of cultural objects, but at a macro level concerning what objects our culture holds valuable. We may not like the result but can’t deny the reality.

Over at The Morning News, Nikkitha Bakshani writes:

A UC San Diego report published in 2009 suggests the average American’s eyes cross 100,500 words a day—text messages, emails, social media, subtitles, advertisements—and that was in 2008. Data collected by the marketing company Likehack tells us that the average social media user “reads”—or perhaps just clicks on—285 pieces of content daily, an estimated 54,000 words. If it is true, then we are reading a novel slightly longer than The Great Gatsby every day.

Of course, the word “read” is rather diluted in this instance. You can peruse or you can skim, and it’s still reading. I spoke with writer and avid reader John Sherman about his online reading habits. “Sometimes, when I say I read an article,” said Sherman, “what I actually mean is I read a tweet about that article.” He is hardly alone in this.

We no longer read for knowledge, she writes, but instead consume whatever and wherever in a perpetual search for information.

The book holds out promise for more though. Let’s leave it with Giraldi:

Dedicated readers are precisely those who understand the Socratic inkling that they aren’t smart enough, will never be smart enough—the wise are wise only insofar as they know that they know nothing. In other words: Someone with all the answers has no use for books. Anthony Burgess once suggested that “book” is an acronym for “Box Of Organized Knowledge,” and the collector is pantingly desperate for proximity to that knowledge—he wants to be buffeted, bracketed, bulletproofed by books.

Image: Sucked In And Drawn Along, by Lotus Carroll.

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A new book exploring the intersection of literature and code is a delightful romp through some of the Western world’s most celebrated writers and the imagined JavasScript they would have — could have — slung had they been so inclined.

A new book exploring the intersection of literature and code is a delightful romp through some of the Western world’s most celebrated writers and the imagined JavasScript they would have — could have — slung had they been so inclined.

Written and compiled from submissions by Angus Croll, an engineer at Twitter, If Hemingway Wrote JavaScript celebrates literature and code in equal measure.

In particular, Croll explores the literary achievements and style of his authors — Virginia Woolf, Franz Kafka and David Foster Wallace among many others — and then imagines the JavaScript they’d write to tackle specific problems. For Croll, JavaScript is the “most literary of computer languages,” and like literature it’s open to conceptual breakthroughs based on the imagination of those writing it.

Reading through the book, we’re reminded that “although [Jack] Kerouac claimed to dislike the period and mistrust the comma, he used both liberally.” Or, “by the time he wrote Ulysses, [James] Joyce had abandoned narrative  authority entirely, in favor of an urgent, in-the-moment stream of consciousness in which both narrator and protagonist relate disjointed scraps of ephemera that mirror the random, cluttered, ever-changing character of interior thought.”

Or, take this intro to Tupac Shakur:

It’s hard to reconcile the two identities of Tupac Amaru Shakur. One was cerebral, sensitive, and compassionate: an actor and poet in his early teens, a devotee of Shakespeare who addressed women’s struggles, child abuse, and poverty in his lyrics. The other was a violent, gun-toting embodiment of the gangsta rap movement: in and out of prison and sporting a “Thug Life” tattoo across his stomach, killed at the age of 25 by an unknown attacker’s bullet.

All of which is to say that like authors and their telltale innovations, some programming languages lend themselves to a wide degree of stylistic expression.

Via If Hemingway Wrote Javascript:

JavaScript has plenty in common with natural language. It is at its most expressive when combining simple idioms in original ways; its syntax, which is limited yet flexible, promotes innovation without compromising readability. And, like natural language, it’s ready to write…

…Natural language has no dominant paradigm, and neither does JavaScript. Developers can select from a grab bag of approaches—procedural, functional, and object-oriented—and blend them as appropriate. Most ideas can be expressed in multiple ways, and many JavaScript programmers can be identified by their distinct coding style.

The book is divided into five “assignments” with each devoted to a few authors producing code to solve a given problem. The first assignment is to write a function that “returns the first n numbers of the Fibonacci sequence.” The Fibonacci sequence, in turn, is a series of numbers where each is the sum of the previous two. For example: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, etc.

Croll gets things started with the book’s namesake, Ernest Hemingway, whose prose, we’re reminded, “is never showy, and his syntax is almost obsessively conventional. The short, unchallenging sentences and absence of difficult words add a childlike quality to his cadence. He assumes the role of naive observer, all the better to draw his readers into the emotional chaos beneath.”

Here’s what Hemingway’s JavaScript looks like as he tackles the Fibonacci assignment:


function fibonacci(size) {

     var first = 0, second = 1, next, count = 2, result = [first, second];

     if (size < 2)
          return "the request was made but it was not good"

     while (count++ < size) {
          next = first + second;
          first = second;
          second = next;
          result.push(next);
     }
    
     return result;
}

Short. Concise. To the point. Or, in Croll’s analysis:

Hemingway’s Fibonacci solution is code reduced to its essentials, with no word or variable wasted. It’s not fancy — maybe it’s even a little pedantic — but that’s the beauty of Hemingway’s writing. There’s no need for elaborate logic or showy variable names. Hemingway’s JavaScript is plain and clear, and it does only what is necessary—and then it gets out of the way to allow the full glory of the Fibonacci sequence to shine through.

William Shakespeare comes next. Here’s the bard tackling the same problem:


function theSeriesOfFIBONACCI(theSize) {

     //a CALCKULATION in two acts
     //employ'ng the humourous logick of JAVA-SCRIPTE

     //Dramatis Personae
     var theResult; //an ARRAY to contain THE NUMBERS
     var theCounter; //a NUMBER, serv'nt to the FOR LOOP

     //ACT I: in which a ZERO is added for INITIATION

     //[ENTER: theResult]

     //Upon the noble list bestow a zero
     var theResult = [0];

     //ACT II: a LOOP in which the final TWO NUMBERS are QUEREED and SUMM'D

     //[ENTER: theCounter]
    
     //Commence at one and venture o'er the numbers
     for (theCounter = 1; theCounter < theSize; theCounter++) {
          //By divination set adjoining members
          theResult[theCounter] = (theResult[theCounter-1] || 1) +
          theResult[Math.max(0, theCounter-2)];
     }


     //'Tis done, and here's the answer
     return theResult;

     //[Exeunt]
}

Shakespeare, as Croll reminds us, played with the iambic pentameter popular in his time by deviating where stressed syllables lay and sometimes adding an extra syllable as well. His JavaScript doesn’t hesitate to do so either.

Notice that although Shakespeare’s comments are in iambic pentameter, he’s using weak endings (that is, adding an extra unstressed syllable). Shakespeare frequently used weak endings to denote enquiry or uncertainty (the Elizabethan equivalent of upspeak).

If Hemingway Wrote JavaScript should delight the nerdier fans of both literature and code, satisfying each whether they’re familiar with the authors or the inner workings of JavaScript.

As Croll writes, part of his effort is to bridge the gap between the humanities and computer science. The result, this book, is amazingly well done.

Bonus: The illustrations are great too.

This review originally appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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No matter the content you produce, it will be broken down and remixed by your audience into its smallest – and most durable – units of sharability.

This came across my Twitter radar a few days ago where Jill Falk was kind enough to share the quote.

The situated documentary allows us to examine the emerging transformation of the storytelling model of journalism from the analog to the digital age. In the traditional model of analog journalism, storytelling is dominated by a linear presentation of facts, typically from beginning to end. The audience experiences the story in a passive—almost voyeuristic—mode. Stories tend to have a single or sometimes dual modality of media forms (e.g. text, or text combined with photographs, infographics, audio, and video). A story is published and fixed in time. Corrections might be published later as an afterthought. Stories tend to be based on events, and as such, are episodic rather than contextual. The voice of a typical story is that of a third-person narrative, perhaps best characterized by legendary CBS Evening News Anchor Walter Cronkite’s signature sign-off, “And that’s the way it is.”

The new media storytelling model is nonlinear. The storyteller conceptualizes the audience member not as a consumer of the story engaged in a third-person narrative, but rather as a participant engaged in a first-person narrative. The storyteller invites the participant to explore the story in a variety of ways, perhaps beginning in the middle, moving across time or space, or by topic. Nonlinear storytelling may come as a bit of a shock to some traditional journalists, but it is possible to adapt to new technology without sacrificing quality or integrity. — John V. Pavlik and Frank Bridges’ monograph, The Emergence of Augmented Reality (AR) as a Storytelling Medium in Journalism, published in Journalism and Communictaion Monographs, Volume 15, Number 1, Spring 2013. (via virtual300)

I think this an interesting concept and one that has roots beyond contemporary multimedia storytelling.

For example, my favorite books growing up were of the choose your own adventure variety. You read a chapter and were then told to proceed to chapter X, Y or Z depending on your plot desires. Later, as a teenager, I was fascinated by Julio Cortázar’s “Hopscotch”. The table of contents told you you could read the book traditionally, from Page 01 to the end. It also gave you an alternative reading. That is, read Chapter 01, then jump about nilly-willy, forward and back between chapters. The end result is a type of narrative driven more by “impressions” than linear storytelling.

William Burroughs did this as well. “Naked Lunch” can supposedly be read any which way. Front to back, back to front, jumping about the middle. It’s all good. Urban legend has it that Burroughs dropped the manuscript on the way to his publisher. Despite pages spilled on the ground there were no worries. Again, the book could be read any which way so he gathered the pages up, stuffed them in his binder and continued on his way.

Film plays with this too. Fans of Memento enjoy the front to back and back to front chronologies. Other films employ this technique as well. Back in the 1960s, Jean Luc Goddard famously remarked, “I agree that a film should have a beginning, a middle and an end but not necessarily in that order.”

So let’s go back to multimedia storytelling with the Internet as a primary distribution platform. The underappreciated hyperlink is our key to moving back and forth within a narrative. Our design and UX considerations help control where the story inquisitor might go. But despite our best intentions, that independent viewer is going to pick and choose his or her way through a narrative.

Check our Multimedia Tag for references here. These are stories that have beginning, middle and end. But they’re also stories where the viewer chooses what his or her beginning, middle and end actually is. Site visitors are independent operators. We can try to guide them with our design but they’ll go where interest guides them to go.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to the crux of the matter – multimedia storytelling or not – and that’s the atomic unit of online consumption.

This is a concept that’s been around for a while now. In my interpretation it means something like this: Whatever you do, whatever you post, whatever you research, whatever you pour your heart and soul into, the following will happen: your story will be sliced and diced and shared on social networks and otherwise refactored elsewhere. This could be the mere title. It could be a sentence buried deep within you article. It could be seconds 00:45 – 00:55 of a video. It could be an animated gif of that video. It could be metadata of the information that you produce. It could be an API mashup of all the above.

Simply, whatever story you produce, and whatever media you use to produce it in, your content will be broken down into its smallest parts and shared on Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, blogs and the like.

This is not a bad thing. It’s an agnostic thing. This is remix culture.

Simply and unambiguously, we must deal with it. And from this side of the Internet, we deal with it pleasurably so.

About: A version of this article original appeared on The Future Journalism Project.

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