The last, best New Yorker cartoon of the week. Happy New Year.
News for December 2009
Are you happy with your current ball?
My backed-up Instapaper has delivered me a spate of writings on writing of late. First, George Orwell in “Politics and the English Language”:
As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think.
Authors of unnecessarily bloated blog posts (eyes firmly in mirror), take note. In better news, DFW explains why it is OK to use split infinitives:
This is probably the place for your SNOOT reviewer openly to concede that a certain number of traditional prescriptive rules really are stupid and that people who insist on them (like the legendary assistant to PM. Margaret Thatcher who refused to read any memo with a split infinitive in it, or the jr.-high teacher I had who automatically graded you down if you started a sentence with Hopefully) are that very most pathetic and dangerous sort of SNOOT, the SNOOT Who Is Wrong. The injunction against split infinitives, for instance, is a consequence of the weird fact that English grammar is modeled on Latin even though Latin is a synthetic language and English is an analytic language.  Latin infinitives consist of one word and are impossible to as it were split, and the earliest English Prescriptivists — so enthralled with Latin that their English usage guides were actually written in Latin  — decided that English infinitives shouldn’t be split either. Garner himself takes out after the s.i. rule in both SPLIT INFINITIVES and SUPERSTITIONS.  And Hopefully at the beginning of a sentence, as a certain cheeky eighth-grader once pointed out to his everlasting social cost, actually functions not as a misplaced modal auxiliary or as a manner adverb like quickly or angrily but as a “sentence adverb” that indicates the speaker’s attitude about the state of affairs described by the sentence (examples of perfectly OK sentence adverbs are Clearly, Basically, Luckily), and only SNOOTs educated in the high-pedantic years up to 1960 blindly proscribe it or grade it down.
This long passage comes from an even longer essay on the Usage Wars, which is fully engaging if you’re interested in such battles, and at least partly engaging if you’re not. Writing is a wildly self-indulgent activity, almost as self-indulgent as writing an article connecting the most popular man in the world to your profession. Which gives those who write for pay an added responsibility to justify their indulgence. There’s nothing inherently wrong with indulgence, writing for others is serious stuff. At the very least, try.
(BTW, if you can only read one, read Orwell. It’s shorter. Set aside several subway rides for the Wallace.)
Avatar is a pretty mediocre movie. Its acting is average, its story bests even Titanic in predictability, and it’s very long. Liberals will notice the heavy-handed colonialism. Conservatives will notice the heavy-handed environmentalism. The romance materializes out of thin air, the science leaves more questions than answers, and no character breaks type.
But, it is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. Period.
Aural Story of the Week
An inebriated college classmate once made the following argument: The Beach Boys were actually a better band than The Beatles. Preposterous, I said! And, like, seriously, preposterous. The Beatles body of work can’t be topped, but I am willing to concede two points:
1. Good Vibrations (and maybe God Only Knows) are better than any single Beatles record.
2. Pet Sounds kicks the butt of any single Beatles album.
Continue this pointless debate in the comments! But first, enjoy “That’s Not Me,” with a 24-year old Brian Wilson finding himself:
My folks when I wrote them and told ‘em what I was up to said that’s not me,
I went through all kinds of changes, took a look at myself and said that’s not me
The Internet in Photos
Last month’s Wired has a photo spread following the path of a bit through the Internet. Who knew a major Web hub passed through (a utility hut next to a railroad on the outskirts of) my hometown, Kansas City:
Kansas City, Missouri
The men who built the transcontinental railroad didn’t know it, but they were clearing the way for the Web. Global Crossing uses the old Iron Horse’s right-of-way as the main vein for its long-haul data pipes. Keeping information humming across a 3,000-mile-wide landmass requires utility huts like this one (on left) every 50 miles — even the highest-grade optical fiber has imperfections that cause the signal to weaken as the countryside flashes by. Filled with dense wave-division multiplex amplifiers, these sheds goose the pulses of light and keep bits flowing alongside our amber waves of grain.
All of the photos are here.
This Week's Best Profile
This week we have Truman Capote’s masterwork: a study of two men who brutally murdered a family of four rural Kansans, the Clutters. You might have seen the movie.
Here’s one of the men, Perry Smith, describing his lack of remorse to a friend hoping to find some contrition:
Perry said, “Am I sorry? If that’s what you mean – I’m not. I don’t feel anything about it. I wish I did. But nothing about it bothers me a bit. Half an hour after it happened, Dick [Hickock, his accomplice] was making jokes and I was laughing at them. Maybe we’re not human. I’m human enough to feel sorry for myself. Sorry I can’t walk out of here when you walk out. But that’s all.” Cullivan could scarcely credit so detached an attitude; Perry was confused, mistaken, it was not possible for any man to be that devoid of conscience or compassion. Perry said, ‘Why? Soldiers don’t lose much sleep. They murder, and get medals for doing it. The good people of Kansas want to murder me – and some hangman will be glad to get the work. It’s easy to kill – a lot easier than passing a bad check. Just remember: I only knew the Clutters maybe an hour. If I’d really known them, I guess I’d feel differently. I don’t think I could live with myself. But the way it was, it was like picking off targets in a shooting gallery.”
The writing might not blow you away – unless you consider the obvious influence this piece, along with a few others, had on the the past forty years of literary journalism. Decades worth of New Yorker articles owe their pacing to this story.
This Week's Best Profile
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Newspapers aren’t dead! Sorta!):
The shades were drawn against the morning sun, as though Rodney Dukes were trying to block out his doubt about the $1 million bill. The room was dark. It was hard to see the dishes in the sink, the unpaid bills on the table, the gray in his black hair. The TV was muted. The only sound was the occasional beep of a smoke alarm battery dying.
Rodney often thought about the bill while sitting in the darkness of his daughter’s place in the Villa Griffin public housing project. A million dollar note. A life-changing sum in a scrap of paper. A bill he had discovered five months earlier on the street — his ticket out, away from all this.
At first, he was certain the bill was fake. Or stolen. Just another false promise in “this dead-ass, beat-down town.” He hadn’t held a steady job since working as a parking lot attendant six years ago. He and his wife recently lost their house. Now they were staying with his daughter. Rodney, a father of three, was a man close to bottom, a place where even dreaming of escape can feel like too much weight to bear. Better to let it go.
But now he believed. He believed in the possibility of the $1 million bill. He allowed himself to think that luck might be smiling on him at long last, finally, after 51 years, tapping him on his worry-worn shoulders.
You can probably guess how this ends. The commenters certainly weren’t pleased. But it’s eons more interesting than most of the Style/Leisure/Living section drivel you’ll read in a daily paper.
100 Best Last Lines from Novels
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
Respectable. The only line that came to my mind before looking at the list was Hemingway’s:
“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
So, by default, that’s my “best.” Papa came in at No. 6, behind Beckett, Ellison, Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Twain.
Related: the quality seems to drop rather abruptly after the first dozen or so. Am I wrong?
You've just been copying things from my sex diary…
Here’s the best New Yorker Cartoon from this week.
We’re suckers for a good book cover, and especially so after recently seeing the maze of covers at the world’s largest independent bookstore. These, from the Penguin Graphic Classics, are particularly cool. Here’s Huck Finn:
And Candide, by a favorite of ours, Chris Ware (click to read the text):