Addendum: Libraries, Scholars, Words

In discussing memes in The Information, I quoted Daniel Dennett’s clever remark that a scholar is just a library’s way of making another library. If I had read Austerlitz, W. G. Sebald’s great and final novel, I would have added this:

 

it struck me that the scholars, together with the whole apparatus of the library, formed an immensely complex and constantly evolving creature which had to be fed with myriads of words, in order to bring forth myriads of words in its own turn.

GSH-GS027072

Posted in | | Leave a comment

Metaphors of Time: 1850

Whilst pondering metaphors of time, I happened upon a novel published in 1850 with the title, The Mistake of a Life-Time: or, the Robber of the Rhine Valley. A Story of The Mysteries of the Shore, and The Vicissitudes of The Sea. The author, Waldo Howard, promised “a truthful panorama of the events of a stirring and romantic period.” I don’t know anything about Waldo Howard. If you do, please tell me.

Let us jump to Chapter 13, “Lady Gustine and the Jew.” Lady Gustine is a dignified and high-toned beauty of 18 years (“summers”), while her companion for the evening (not the Jew, obviously) is an equally dignified and beautiful 20-year-old. They have been dancing. She is fatigued. “I fear you are fatigued,” says the gentleman.

 

“Oh, no,” said the lady, panting to regain the breath she had expended in the waltz.”

Their balcony overlooks a convenient river. They gaze upon it awhile. Finally dialogue ensues:

“Are you dreaming?”

Mistakes of a Life-Time title page

“O, no, lady. I—I was thinking how truly the passage of yonder tiny craft resembles that of our own life bark on the tide of time.”

“And how?”

“See you not how quietly its hull is borne along with the current … [etc., etc.]

“Well.” [He’s boring her, but his aspect pleases.]

“Thus we are moving now, lady, rapidly, with silent, but steady, and never ceasing motion, down the swift river of time, that sets through the valley of life; all unconsciously we glide on, nodding like this same helmsman, indifferently, as we hold the rudder that guides our own fate—while we swiftly approach the ocean of eternity.”

And more like that. Pretty soon he “dwells upon the beauties of her native valley” but we needn’t follow him there.

Posted in | | 1 Comment

“She Was a Courier in the City”

That venerable carrier of information, the bike messenger, must surely be going obsolete. The reasons are obvious. Anyway, people have been saying so for twenty years.

William Gibson, as ever, has had a more complex view of what the future might bring. In 1993 (Virtual Light), he described a bike messenger as “one who earned her living at the archaic intersection of information and geography.” This was visionary:

The offices the girl rode between were electronically conterminous—in effect, a single desktop, the map of distances obliterated by the seamless and instantaneous 220px-William_Gibson_60th_birthday_portraitnature of communication. Yet this very seamlessness, which had rendered physical mail an expensive novelty, might as easily be viewed as porosity, and as such created the need for the service the girl provided. Physically transporting bits of information about a grid that consisted of little else, she provided a degree of absolute security in the fluid universe of data. With your memo in the girl’s bag, you knew precisely where it was; otherwise, your memo was nowhere, perhaps everywhere, in that instant of transit.

Seamlessness and porosity. We have both.

I’m looking forward to interviewing Gibson in a few weeks at the Key West Literary Seminar.

Posted in | | 2 Comments

March of time, arrow of time, time warp …

This is the kind of thing that’s buzzing through my head as I work on the next book. (It’s an N-gram, computed on the fly by Google here, from the contents of all the books they [in some cases illegally] scanned from libraries.)

time warp n-gram

(Were you wondering about those “time warp” occurrences in the early 19th century? They come from passages like this (1812): “By keeping up the sluices, and drains, and banks, the land can be refreshed at any time. Warp land has had crops of flax …”)

 

Posted in | | 2 Comments

The Zone of Uncertainty (What Pope Francis Said)

Everybody has an opinion or a summary or an interpretation of the interview with Pope Francis, and this is the last place you’d come for more, but one part resonates especially powerfully for me. It’s when he talks about uncertainty and doubt.

In seeking God “in all things,” he says, “there is still an area of uncertainty [una zona di incertezza]. There must be.”

 

If a person says that he met God with total certainty and is not touched by a margin of uncertainty, then this is not good. For me, this is an important key. If one has the answers to all the questions—that is the proof that God is not with him. It means that he is a false prophet using religion for himself. The great leaders of the people of God, like Moses, have always left room for doubt. You must leave room for the Lord, not for our certainties; we must be humble. Uncertainty is in every true discernment that is open to finding confirmation in spiritual consolation.

For me, this is where religion and science can clasp hands.

Posted in | | 2 Comments

Why Must an Author Twit?

I’m reading with the greatest pleasure Zoo Time, the latest novel by Howard Jacobson. The narrator is an author called Guy Ableman, and one of its subjects is the parlous state of publishing today.

In this scene, Ableman meets with his publisher, Merton — “a publisher of the old school” who “didn’t know what was what any more.” They have the following all-too-timely conversation:

 

“Do you know what I am expected to require of you?” he suddenly looked me in the eyes and said. “That you twit.”

“Twit?”

“Twit, tweet, I don’t know.”

“And why are you expected to require it of me?”

“So that you can do our business for us. So that you can connect to your readers, tell them what you’re writing, tell them where you’re going to be speaking, tell them what you’re reading, tell them what you’re fucking eating.”

After that, the conversation naturally turns to “blagging.”

Jacobson, who turned 71 this weekend, does not tweet, as far as I can tell. I do, but at least I can say I’ve never tweeted about anything I was eating.

Posted in | | Leave a comment

The OED Redefines “Information” Yet Again

The entry for information in the Oxford English Dictionary always makes good reading. It’s substantial: close to 10,000 words long. I see it has changed again.

The last time I looked, the Number One definition was “The imparting of incriminating knowledge.” Excellent! As far as I’m concerned, they could stop right there. Of course, the relevant citations mostly came from early English law texts—Rolls of Parliament from the time of Edward IV, that kind of thing. Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England.

The objects of the other species of informations, filed by the master of the crown-office upon the complaint or relation of a private subject, are any gross and notorious misdemesnors, riots, batteries, libels, and other immoralities of an atrocious kind.

But no longer. This definition has been quietly demoted. Maybe the lexicographers thought it was too quaint. Now the Number One definition of information is “The imparting of knowledge in general.” I guess it’s hard to argue with that.

Many other important senses remain, of course. There’s the modern, scientific one, due to Claude Shannon (“a mathematically defined quantity divorced from any concept of news or meaning; spec. one which represents the degree of choice exercised in the selection or formation of one particular symbol, message, etc., out of a number of possible ones …”). And the sentimental favorite, the true and venerable meaning of the word, Number III.7: “The giving of form or essential character to something.” As in J. Sharpe, 1630:

The soule or spirit doth giue information, or operation to the whole body, and euery part thereof.

Never mind that it’s “Now rare.

Does this tinkering have a back story? I’ll try to find out.

Posted in | | 3 Comments

Wikipedia’s Women Problem

There is consternation at Wikipedia over the discovery that hundreds of novelists who happen to be female were being systematically removed from the category “American novelists” and assigned to the category “American women novelists.” Amanda Filipacchi, whom I will call an American novelist despite her having been born in Paris, set off a furor with an opinion piece on the New York Times website last week. Browsing on Wikipedia, she had suddenly noticed that women were vanishing from “American novelists”—starting, it seemed, in alphabetical order. In the A’s and the B’s, the list was now almost exclusively male:

I did more investigating and found other familiar names that had been switched from the ‘American Novelists’ to the ‘American Women Novelists’ category: Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ayn Rand, Ann Beattie, Djuna Barnes, Emily Barton, Jennifer Belle, Aimee Bender, Amy Bloom, Judy Blume, Alice Adams, Louisa May Alcott, V. C. Andrews, Mary Higgins Clark—and, upsetting to me: myself.

The word that came to mind—and the Times used it for the headline—was sexism.

And who could disagree? Joyce Carol Oates expressed her view on Twitter: “Wikipedia bias an accurate reflection of universal bias. All (male) writers are writers; a (woman) writer is a woman writer.” Elaine Showalter tweeted in response that this was not what she’d had in mind in titling a book A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers: “Wikipedia is cutting down on American writers category by taking women out of it! A new step backwards.”

At Wikipedia, all hell broke loose.
(Let’s pause here to flag the phrase, “at Wikipedia.” Wikipedia is a notional place only. It is not situated in a sleek California corporate campus, like Google in Mountain View or Apple in Cupertino, but instead distributed across cyberspace.)

This kind of thing is usually bruited and argued on Wikipedia’s


Continue reading “Wikipedia’s Women Problem” »

Posted in | | 6 Comments