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For Sale: Magna Carta. Slightly Used.

What is MagnaCarta worth? Exactly $21,321,000. We know because that’s what it fetched in a fair public auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Twenty-one million is, by far, the most ever paid for a page of text, and therein lies a paradox: Information is now cheaper than ever and also more expensive. Mostly, of course, information is practically free, easier to store and faster to spread than our parents imagined possible. In one way, Magna Carta is already yours for the asking: you can read it any time, at the touch of a button. It has been preserved, photographically and digitally, in countless copies with no evident physical reality, which will nonetheless last as long as our civilization. In another way, Magna Carta is a 15-by-17-inch piece of parchment, fragile and scarce and practically unreadable. Why should that version be so valuable? Magna Carta itself is a nice reminder of how costly it once was to store and spread information. Its very purpose was to get the king’s word down in tangible form, safeguard it, …

Why Must an Author Twit?

Howard Jacobson: “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.”

“You Are Old, Father Feynman”

You write a book; time passes. Toward the end of Genius I quote a bit of doggerel by “a young friend” of Richard Feynman: You are old, Father Feynman … And your hair has turned visibly grey; And yet you keep tossing ideas around— At your age, a disgraceful display! Where did I find that? I have no memory. Now comes email from Tom Ferbel, a distinguished particle physicist at the University of Rochester, claiming authorship. Ferbel has been around: Fermilab, CERN, the  Max Planck Institute, SLAC—wherever a big high-energy collider can be found. In 1977 he and Feynman met at a conference on multiparticle dynamics in Kayserberg, France. Feynman was 59—about this old: Also present was Giuliano Preparata, a 35-year-old firebrand from Padua by way of Rome and Princeton, then working as a theorist at CERN. Apparently Preparata and Feynman got into a shouting match about quantum chromodynamics, then in its heyday, and the hypothetical elementary particles known as gluons. (Gluons are needed to bind quarks. They’re the glue in the strong nuclear force—get it?) For …

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.) (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 …”)  

The Zone of Uncertainty (What Pope Francis Said)

Everybody has an opinion or a summary or an interpretation of the  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 …

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?” “O, no, lady. I—I was thinking how truly the passage of yonder tiny craft resembles …