Notes on Bluets

1. I haven’t read Leslie Jamison’s new book of essays The Empathy Exams, but even if the slew of reviews are only half right, it’s an amazing book. This past weekend, Jamison had an essay in the Guardian talking about confessional writing and how it was not in fact a primary venue for narcissism but an arena for so much more. Even though I haven’t read her book, it struck me as an odd argument to make; we seem indisputably awash in personal confessional writing. This is not to disparage it. Confessional writing, like writing of the nonconfessional sort, can be both excellent and not. It all depends. As a mode of writing it seems currently in very little need of defense. The essay struck me almost as an attempted high-art rescue of confessional writing, a gentrification of an allegedly seedy neighborhood.

2. I read this in light of recent mental chewing of a different, much-praised essay book, Bluets by Maggie Nelson, which I finished still wanting to like much more than I actually did.*

3. Maggie Nelson, according to her jacket bio, is most often classified as a poet. The book is divided into 240 numbered sections, most of which are less than a page in length. These sections total 95 pages.

4. I should say that I am not against numbered brief sections nor am I against essays that read like poems or vice versa.

5. Here’s how the book begins:

1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.

6. This beginning is indicative: the conversational tone that surges to stylization and heightened poeticism, the performance of her thinking as though it were a confession, information she is pretending to confess.

7. Nelson really likes the color blue, finds basically a religious soothing in its myriad appearances in her life. This might seem odd but hardly amounts to a confession. It might be rather a slightly askew preoccupation with religious or spiritual undertones, or at least undertones of the meaningful, but those undertones are not audible here. She tries to dress up a relatively banal personal preoccupation as hidden, private wisdom expressed at great psychic expense. But it’s just her riffing on the color blue.

8. Perhaps what I’m really trying to say is that I wish the book took itself less seriously.

9. The effect of the short numbered sections is an agglomeration of riffs. Some topics covered include: a friend who has been paralyzed by an accident, never described; memories of a recently departed lover; scholarly snippets from previous writers on the color blue; her accumulation of blue objects and moments in a lifetime of being consistently moved by the color blue.



10. I wish I could say this added up to something or that it satisfactorily didn’t add up to something. I wish I could say it was provocatively fractured.


11. What this quickly leads to is a kind of faux confession, confession as performance and rhetorical mode, rather than any information actually being confessed. And faux confession is basically a form of bragging, a type of willfully glamorous information offered strictly to impress the reader.

12. The two main relationships in the book — the paralyzed friend and the departed lover — feel opaque. For example, the sections about her friend feel like bids for seriousness, but the contrast between her friend’s paralysis and her own preoccupation with the color blue undermines her color enthusiasm. It makes Nelson seem trivial, and it makes her friend seem like she was used as a rhetorical device, as a ballast for our narrator’s serious whimsy. Here’s an example:

119. My friend was a genius before her accident, and she remains a genius now. The difference is that these days it is nearly impossible to discount her pronouncements. Something about her condition has bestowed upon her the quality of an oracle, perhaps because now she generally stays in one place, and one must go unto her. Eventually you will have to give up this love, she told me one night while I made us dinner. It has a morbid heart.

The high lyricism of “go unto her” on first reading seems deft and complex, but on a second reading seems enormously callous — as if the friend is being mocked for the sake of a poetic conceit.

13. Likewise, the central relationship with the unnamed man that provides the closest thing to a through-line in the book. It’s here where the book is interestingly confessional and interestingly contemporary in its confessionalism. Nelson is frank about the sexual satisfaction she experiences with her lover. She revels in the sex between them, and on the one hand it is bracing to read a woman narrator disclose her pleasure like this under no veil of shame, under no societally constructed architecture of landing Mr. Right by the end of the movie, etc. There is simply the self-renewing mystery of her own desire. But as the confessions increase without any compensatory revelations about her or him or the texture or context of the relationship as a whole, aside from the sporadic but great sex, the confessions take on a different light. Again, it all starts to sound like a kind of bragging. Here is an example:

116. One of the last times you came to see me, you were wearing a pale blue button-down shirt, short-sleeved. I wore this for you, you said. We fucked for six hours straight that afternoon, which does not seem precisely possible but that is what the clock said. We killed the time. You were on your way to a seaside town, a town of much blue, where you would be spending a week with the other woman you were in love with, the woman you are with now. I’m in love with you both in completely different ways, you said. It seemed unwise to contemplate this statement any further.

14. By mentioning this aspect of the book, I do not mean to judge Nelson in some kind of moralistic, nanny-pants way. What I am interested in is the cumulative rhetorical effect. What’s more, if this we’re a piece of fiction we might interpret this one-sided portrait of a relationship as interestingly flawed; that is, we might be tempted to judge the narrator for thinking of the character in this way or to interpret her myopia. But since it’s purportedly an essay, it seems like Nelson is simply being willfully obtuse. That either Nelson shares this seemingly shallow appreciation of other people (doubtful) or that the presentation of herself has gotten out of her authorial control.

15. Theory: it seems that confessional writing only really works when the author is fully willing to exploit herself and her friends and neighbors. Any kind authorial reticence, out of politeness or fear, cripples the memoir, turns it into a narcissist’s cave where we’re watching wall projections. To make it a really riveting piece of writing, you still have to go outside the self; you have to transgress against all the other people to make them characters.

16. Phillip Lopate wrote in an essay a few years ago about how his students were basically turning their personal nonfiction pieces into a type of short story where they let versions of themselves pretend to be stupid in order to make the stories more “dramatic.” That is, they dumbed down their own intelligence to turn their essays into a kind of fiction, while still calling them essays. Essays, if they are to mean anything, are the full-flowing tide of one’s intellect, not strategically dammed for dramatic effect. The very premise of an essay, or a piece of personal nonfiction, is that one is not unnecessarily dramatizing what happened, but dealing with what actually happened, as close as possible, and when what actually happened is obscured for some reason, such as the identity of a lover, that the hiddenness be dealt with as frankly as possible.

17. A counterargument: All of this is on purpose. That is, Nelson is deliberately constructing this authorial persona for Bluets. A few months ago, Will Wilkinson wrote a really wonderful post** about the “implied author” in fiction and how this relates to an author’s persona in nonfiction as well, how nonfiction authors inevitably construct slightly exaggerated versions of themselves, and that we, as readers, should be totally familiar with this move; comedians do it all the time. Seinfeld in Seinfeld is not really Seinfeld. So I’m not trying to be a rube in misunderstanding Nelson’s moves. But in that case, I can’t figure out why Nelson would portray herself this way — why she would, in effect, make herself appear shallow. I realize that hand-in-hand with adopting a persona, nonfiction narrators often degrade themselves — becoming more obtuse, more curmudgeonly, more daft, more neurotic, etc. — as a way to humble themselves before the reader. And again: that’s fine. It reminds me in a way of Jonathan Franzen’s nonfiction; he often portrays himself as a smarty-pants jerk and then ironizes that depiction in a way that seemingly attempts to absolve himself of being a smarty-pants jerk or to make us see that he understands this about himself, but the whole procedure turns into a failure of irony and a failure of authorial control. Jerk will out. It’s akin to listening to a humorless person tell you joke after joke.

18. Re: the Jamison editorial: The tendency in confessional writing to turn into a kind of arms race of trauma. I think this is why we get fake Holocaust memoirs. It’s the ultimate trauma — world history’s transgressions made personal or “relatable.”

19. Whereas in fiction the reader is encouraged to empathize with the character in spite of their differences, in this kind of confessional nonfiction the trauma becomes a solder between author and reader, so that the exchange of readerly trust becomes a form of identity politics: I get you because I am like you. You “represent” me and my troubles. This is empathy as demography.

20. Can you empathize with confessional nonfiction writing if you can’t “relate” to the trauma? Does it all come down to how well everything is depicted in language? That is, to good writing? But tell me again what exactly is the definition of good writing?

21. I’m going to stop writing now before I am tempted to make a definitive point or discuss reality television, whichever may come first.

*I would also simultaneously like to recognize a counter-feeling of not really caring much what my own opinion is re: a book I read. In short, I’ve grown tired of liking books or disliking books. Or, if you prefer, “liking” them. My own opinions feel stale, not to be trusted.

**Seriously. Just go read it. It’s wonderfully well articulated and clarifying and much better than this paragraph-bingo.

Notes on blogging from a non-blogger

Recently, the New York Times decided to shutter a few of its “blogs,” with promises to radically decrease many more of its other blogs over the next year, the idea being that blogs as stand-alone journalistic entities at the paper had run their course. This sparked a brief miniature discussion of the definition of blogs that had echoes of 2004.

I’ve been thinking about what blogs are and what they could be used for, while not actually doing any blogging myself, since about that time, so I was keenly interested. I was especially interested in what Dave Winer said of the subject and the fact that I disagreed with him. Now, Dave Winer knows more about blogging than I do (obv), but I thought: what could airing my ill-informed and underbaked disagreement with the “protoblogger” hurt? And why not express this disagreement via my never-updated blog?

Winer defines a blog as “the unedited voice of a person.” This defines blogs from an editorial standpoint; that is, a blog is writing that has not been edited, at least by anyone not the author. In this way a blog becomes the (almost) unmediated voice of the writer. (I say “almost” because all of this still must occur in language.) Winer says that what the Times had on its hands were not actually blogs because they by definition were too beholden to the institutional voice of the New York Times (excepting maybe Paul Krugman). Winer sees blogging as a reporter’s sources speaking directly (something which could and should then be culled and refined into a journalist’s own activity).

I always defined blogging from a technical perspective: blogging is a series of posts that are listed in reverse chronological order. What this really means is that blogging or a blog is a certain type of website or a certain format of publishing online (a format whose time might very well be past its point of usefulness). I can see right away that my own definition is slightly rickety because a permalink for a blog post is itself its own individual web page, just like an article page from the Times or a post on Medium. A blog is really just a method for organizing individual web pages. Medium is the latest revision to this idea, functioning as a collection and, more importantly, promotional device for a bunch of blog posts. Medium is a new form of blog that de-emphasizes the author and her chronology, and re-emphasizes the platform through which an author publishes her writing.* The platform is the consistent thread, wherein an old-form blog (Winer’s conception of the blog), the consistent thread was the single author’s voice.

My main problem with Winer’s definition is that it stretches the definition of blogging out almost to the point of uselessness. If a blog is just my language unedited by any outside entity, then there’s no difference between what I’m writing here and a grocery list, if I put my grocery list online.

On yr way home, get:
— milk
— pickles
— the good ice cream

But what both definitions do is point to how blogging is tied up historically and technologically with the moment when publishing writing on the web by individuals with no special technical skill became a mass phenomenon. When, in essence, writing a blog post became as easy as sending an email. When that intersection occurred, “writing online” became almost synonymous with blogging, and perhaps it’s time to retire the term. I tend to feel that when there is energetic and inflamed debate about an endeavor’s vocabulary, there is something deeper afoot. Journalists are (I assume) loathe to describe themselves merely as bloggers, simply because that invites professional class distinctions. Likewise, if I were to publish a short story on my blog, it would not “count” in the academic-literary-publishing sense, because it didn’t appear in an edited journal, either in print (still preferable!) or online. The joy and the problem of online publishing is that you can publish anything, but the context clues that we are familiar with vanish and the accompanying shorthand indications for quality and/or prestige vanish at the same time. The ranting of a lunatic and your next favorite novel look the same in your feed reader or as a Facebook post, or however you get your “content” these days. That is, you have to read them to determine if the person’s a ranting lunatic. This is one reason academic peer review and scholarly journals exist; theoretically, it means that you don’t have to read a person’s scholarship to determine if they are a good scholar.

Add to this what Winer calls “the pressure on blogging,” the multitude of new and different formats for people to publish their unedited voices/grocery lists: Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, etc. Blogging stopped being a meaningful term as that particular format stopped being the primary way people communicated on the internet.

So why stick with the reverse chronological scheme (with dated archive) at this point in time when blogging, such as it is, seems in flux or meaningless or passe? Because it’s a reasonably understood structural convention of web publishing. And, at this point, it’s easy. A couple of years ago the writer Dan Baum issued a barrage of tweets narrating his short and fraught time as a staff writer for the New Yorker. In that fractured chain of tweets (I would use the phrase “tweet storm” but that just seems gooby), he said his editor John Bennet told him, “This is the New Yorker, so you can use any narrative structure you like. Just know that when I get it, I’m going to take it apart and make it all chronological.” Perhaps that radical simplicity, reversed, is why the blogging format might live on.

p.s. “Bloggy content with a conversational tone” is a phrase that appears in the Poynter article. I maintain that “conversational tone” in a blog or elsewhere is a ruse, a mirage of rhetoric. Anyone who reads for any amount of time (say, a week?) or who writes for an even shorter amount of time (say, a couple of hours?) realizes that “conversational” in written prose is an effect; that is, you create the effect of breeziness through diligent editing. Also, one writer’s calculated sloppiness or attempt at conversational prose is another person’s affected period slang. See The Catcher in the Rye.

One related mistake that Andrew Sullivan makes in his definition of blogging (most fully outlined in a long magazines article for the Atlantic, “Why I Blog”) is that blogging is a form of broadcast prose. (He calls blogging “the spontaneous expression of instant thought” and “writing out loud.”) I think this is fundamentally mistaken. Even though writing online, because of its nearly instantaneous ease (I can tweet from my phone faster than I can do almost anything else in the world, an amazing accomplishment) and because of its almost instantaneous potential response from an audience, makes it feel like talking. And while the technology makes it feel like talking, it is always still writing, with all of the inconveniences of writing. The primary inconvenience of writing (also its fundamental blessing) is that it exists independent of my presence during your reception. You read this writing whenever you want, at whatever pace you want, and without my somatic gestures to indicate how you should interpret various sentences. You read it in the isolation of your own consciousness. So if blogging feels like a form of talking as you produce and publish it, you’re still stuck reading it at the other end of the screen.

*From an editorial perspective, my main criticism of Medium’s content can be derived from the percentage of its articles that begin with the word “How.” All of the contributors’ rhetorical excesses spring from this word — the author assuming the role of expert to talk down to the (presumed) idiot.

And now this

I’ve written another short essay and posted it to Medium. It’s called “Coincidental Religion” and it’s about the JFK assassination, Don Delillo’s novel Libra, the Boston Marathon Bombing, and Twitter.

Here are three bits of film I discovered after I had finished the essay: two short films by Errol Morris about different aspects of the JFK assassination — The Umbrella Man and November 22, 1963; and a BBC documentary on DeLillo from the early 90s, which is endearingly hokey.

Why did I post it over on Medium and not here? Honestly, I don’t know. I’m still trying to work out my own logic.

My Life as a Mannequin

Dear friendly people of the Internet,

Are we still capitalizing “Internet”? I refuse to hyphenate “email” and feel increasingly gooby capitalizing “Web.” Surely all linguistic acceptance leads toward lowercase.

Anyway, I have a new essay out in the world. It’s called “My Life as a Mannequin” and it’s about Philip Roth, getting lost, Washington, D.C., good bookstores, and more Philip Roth. It’s in the latest issue of Open Letters Monthly.

I originally read part of this essay at the Roth@80 Conference in Newark, NJ, this past spring, an event that was put on by the Philip Roth Society in honor of Roth’s 80th birthday. You can read more about the extravaganza in this New York Times’ article.

Do I feel smug linking to a New York Times’ article? Yes, I do.

Anyway, this essay wouldn’t have made it out of the gate if it weren’t for Roth scholar extraordinare and friend and all around badass David Gooblar. If you want to know more about Roth, you should read his book, The Major Phases of Philip Roth.

p.s. For the extra diligent, here is David Remnick’s recap in the New Yorker of the same Roth event.

p.p.s. The essay in Open Letters features perhaps my second favorite Roth photo of all time. My first favorite is the Hot Dog Photo, which I can’t find in my preliminary internet searching (little “i”), but which was definitely included in the recent photo exhibit in the Newark Public Library.

A re-design is afoot

Sometimes I endeavor to explore the magnitude of my own ignorance. Hence, I have started to fiddle with the look and feel of this website. How should one tweak the most obscure corner of the Internet?

The previous theme for this site was a riff on the Marber Grid, a graphic design schema used in the old Penguin paperbacks, and I admired its thorough bookishness. But this current and most likely temporary theme is “responsive,” in the lingo of the day, which means it will fluff your pillow and serve you tea no matter what kind of screened device you use to visit A Public Address System.

We’ll see how it goes. Progress will no doubt be almost invisible. Which is all for the best, because I think I pulled a muscle in this last iteration.

Favorite 2012 Books, 1/4 Year Late

Well, it’s Spring, at least in terms of the calendar, if not the temperature. That means it’s time for my small list of favorite books from last year.

Colm Tóibín, The Master
This novel shouldn’t work, but it does: Henry James, fresh from his opening-night Guy Domville catastrophe, slowly retreats into novel writing and moves to a new house away from London — Lamb House. That’s it. The story has almost no suspense and only the gentlest of plot-pressure, and yet I was pegged. James comes across as put upon, perversely prim, persecuted by desire, and, when provoked, ruthless. It’s a somber book with a happy ending.
 
Geoff Dyer, The Missing of the Somme & Otherwise Known as the Human Condition
What was life like before Geoff Dyer? I don’t want to remember. I thought these two books showed Dyer at his extremes. Otherwise … is the huge compendium of book reviews, travel pieces, art reviews, etc., that he’s accumulated thus far, and it both shows how far his eye travels but also how focused his attention actually is. The fact that the book is sometimes repetitive turns out to be more interesting than not. Even hitchhikers have routines. And The Missing of the Somme is an excellent condensed punch to your reading weekend — an analysis of memorials of the Great War and what memorials actually mean.
 
Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First
Food is, weirdly, now a fashionable topic, and this book is Gopnik’s latest collection of essays culled from the New Yorker. All relating to food, they’re organized around “letters” to the 19th-century food writer Elizabeth Pennell. I myself enjoy how Gopnik braids his individual New Yorker essays into loose, book-length arguments; it both preserves the exploratory nature of the original essays while giving the books themselves argumentative thrust. Two things make this particular book worth your time: Gopnik is professionally curious and he’s relentlessly eloquent. One of the pleasures of reading him is to see what he’ll make of something.
 
Paul Maliszewski, Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders
In contrast to the stuntlike effect of The Lifespan of a Fact and John D’Agata’s other fact-bending shenanigans, this book actually investigates the how and why of artists who fake it, everything from recent false memoirs to intentionally fabricated journalism to the author’s own stint as a con-artist-in-prose. It moves beyond the shock-and-hand-wringing phase of frauds uncovered and points the finger back at the readers who believed originally in the fakes and what that might mean.
 
Cynthia Ozick, Fame & Folly
This collection of essays actually came out in 1997, but I picked up a copy this fall and reread it. To me, Ozick is to the literary essay as James Brown is to funk. Sometimes I thumb through her five collections just to feel better about human existence. Such talent relentlessly applied is inspiring, overwhelming, a model and a curse. If there’s any American writer alive who should be in a vest on a billboard in Times Square, it’s Cynthia Ozick.

And for special mention:
Tom Bissell, Magic Hours
It’s a grab bag of his nonfiction but it’s good.

DFW: The Last Interview, Reviewed

David Foster Wallace, The Last Interview

There’s a new issue of the Quarterly Conversation out. Not only does it have my review of David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview, it also contains Andrew Altschul on Wallace’s posthumous collection of nonfiction Both Flesh and Not, David Winters on Sam Lipsyte’s new story collection, and Dev Varma on Azareen van der Vliet Oloomi’s novel Fra Keeler. I included that last one because Varma is a friend and I enjoyed getting to type all of those letters. Enjoy!

Notes on ‘We Looked Like Giants’

Well I’ve started to blog for Full Stop, and my first post is about Craig Mod’s idea of “subcompact publishing” and how it might relate to the future of literary magazines. I realize that it’s a bit strange that I’ve started blogging elsewhere, since I seem to be constitutionally incapable of updating this blog with any semblance of regularity. But we’ll see how it goes.

Here are some notes and tangents that didn’t make it into the little piece but that for some reason seem worth preserving, despite their fragmented nature. Or perhaps this is just the age-old desire to have every thought appear in some type of print. (Also, it could reveal the true reason these scraps weren’t included in the first place.)
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In the wake of The Magazine beginning, and Rupert Murdoch’s The Daily folding, and Mod’s essay appearing, and The Awl’s own Weekend Companion app appearing, there’s been a great deal of chatter in the system about all of this. Felix Salmon thinks that tablet-only publications won’t work ultimately, though admittedly he’s focusing more stringently on daily journalism.
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Related question: what exactly is journalism now? If we define journalism simply by its frequency of delivery–that is, a periodical publication, a publication that continually publishes installments–rather than its actual content, then aren’t we all journalists now? In that light the crisis of newspapers is simply the crisis of certain information delivered in this particular way, but periodical publication itself is quite healthy (at least in terms of as an endeavor of human attention).

For a better, more cogent version of this paragraph, read this piece from the Awl published yesterday.
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What is the point of subscribing to a publication? I mean for the individual reader, not the advertising-hungry eyes of the publisher. Is it simply the relief of not having to pursue each issue. (Why is it again that I can’t subscribe to groceries?)
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I do realize that I did not talk about Byliner, The Atavist, Longform, etc., and that I generalized (am generalizing) kind of recklessly about literary magazines as a generic whole, which is probably not smart given that the variety is so great that even the term “literary magazine” isn’t completely useful.
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Related: what exactly is a literary magazine? What does that phrase mean? A magazine of literature? But then, what exactly is literature? Or is it a magazine of items that aspires to be literature?
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Is there an aesthetic or structural reason that the long-form in-between size e-publications have focused almost exclusively on nonfiction? (Is there some wealth of e-pub novellas that I’m missing?) Or is just because no one reads fiction, at least in a large enough way to motivate this kind of experimental publishing work?
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I didn’t mention The Periodical Co in my post and I should have. This application/service (what do I call all this stuff?) was created while I was writing the piece and it provides a way for civilians to create their own subscribable newsstand app.
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Hold on. I have to go back to Craig Mod’s website for a few minutes.
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A corollary to this is the online versions of the New Yorker. For personal organizational reasons I won’t go into here (i.e., hoarding), I subscribe to the New Yorker via the Kindle. Doing this, I lose so much of the magazine: the wonderful feel of the glossy paper, the spot illustrations, all those perfume ads, that typeface, that general concrete weekly manifestation of the New Yorker as some asteroid of civilization careening into my life. But all that aside, it still shows up without me having to lift a fat finger, and after getting over what I’ve lost, it’s awfully convenient to read it on the Kindle, which because of its sea green e-ink get up (I’ve got the slate grey Kindle that has the keyboard at the bottom; I could look up which specific model it is but what is this? some kind of tech blog?) renders the New Yorker fairly “subcompact” in this version. And I’ve resisted the temptation to download the iPad app version because of the horror stories I’ve heard of download time and complications.
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My one goal in life is to minimize the time I spend do anything that could be remotely construed as “syncing.”
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I’ve always wanted to write in pretentious epigrams!
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All this is to say that I’m predisposed to think whatever Mod says is right and true but he does have a point. He made me overcome my tendency to procrastinate and finally download The Magazine. And it’s usability is great: sharp and crisp and quickly there on my phone and just easy to use. I was thumbing away happily in no time. The writing itself is somewhere in the middle. It’s not yet quite good enough. My favorite article thus far is “The Sound of Silence,” Glenn Fleishman’s longer piece on the Library of Congress’s sound archive in the wilds of Virginia. It’s full of information and neat detail. The rest of the articles are a little too bloggy so far. (I realize the irony of this criticism.) What I mean is that the essaylets are essentially personally informe-but-fleeting-feeling opinions about observable trends in the tech-net-blogo-plex. Not that these are unworthwhile, but I felt an interior grain of conventional desire for something with a little more fiber, since it was a, you know, magazine. But anyway, I’m enjoying it.
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Man, that is just one lovely smooth interplanetary excellence gold medal of a website.
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Sometimes, in my more vein-popping moments, I think that fiction and the like should simply stay off line as a matter of principle, a concrete illustration of how they are different. That is, you buy print copies of stuff you actually intend to read and you skim what’s freely available online.

But then I think that idea is just wilfully dumb.
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The history of tech has shown that people will forgo fidelity/excellence/fanatical attention to detail for cheap and fast, that is, for efficiency. And then, after everything is efficiently available, the fanatically excellent becomes a recidivist status symbol.

Am I using “recidivist” correctly?