Week 28, shivelight and shadowtackle
Here’s a question you should ask sometimes, about the story of the world and your place in it: am I living inside the normal body text now… or a phrase offset by parentheses, set to close?
My introduction to this question was the theory of the Gutenberg parenthesis, which draws a parallel between the orality of human culture before print and the renewed orality of human culture after the internet. If the theory is true, or true-ish, it would mean that the period from around 1500 to around 2000 was
essentially an interruption in the broader arc of human communication. And that we are now, via the discursive architecture of the web, slowly returning to a state in which orality—conversation, gossip, the ephemeral—defines our media culture.
Another example of a parenthesis, this one economic, might be the decades just following World War II. The economist Thomas Piketty talks about this; he claims that, looking across all the financial history he can get his hands on, immense inequality has been the norm. This is because, historically, piles of capital grow faster than the economy as a whole, so the rich always get richer (rather than being slowly but surely overtaken by the plebes, which is what we might prefer).
Where’s the parenthesis? Well, capital compounds faster than the economy grows…
the world has just experienced a devastating war, in which whole nations’ worth of industrial apparatus—capital—have been blasted to dust, and the bank accounts of certain rich losers liquidated. In which case, the economy’s growth has a fighting chance. In which case, wealth might be distributed more evenly. For a while.
But perhaps now that the devastation far behind us (in Europe, Asia, and of course the U.S., which wasn’t devastated at all), capital has regained its advantage.
And perhaps the postwar parenthesis has closed.
The thing about these theories is… who knows?! History is complicated. For me, the point isn’t to determine with certainly whether any of these theories is true, but rather to ask the question. Am I living (or reading books, or participating in the economy, or or or) at a point along a “normal” historical continuum, or inside a bubble of strangeness?
This week, I read The Face in the Frost by John Bellairs. I’d heard of neither title nor author seven days ago; a friend was listing formative YA reads, and he included Bellairs, and the book seemed to incorporate an evil robot, so I ordered it, along with three others, instantly.
As is only proper.
It was The Face in the Frost that arrived first—
—and whew, talk about the right book at the right time. Maybe anything that fell into my lap during this fertile, febrile writing week would have felt spookily generative… but no, I don’t actually think so. This book is special.
It was the first novel Bellairs published; it’s about two aging wizards and their (somewhat floppy) quest to defeat an old foe in a place that is, and is not, England and Scotland. It’s creepy and gothic but also cozy; its world is familiar to its characters in a pleasant way. The novel is quite slim, dense with action. It feels like it’s in a hurry to get it all out, which is very much a first book thing, and also something I’m conscious of in my own writing, even now. I loved it.
The book is also just very English. I feel like a dork for enjoying books in this English Midwinter Mode so much. You know the genre: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Hild, and, of course, The Dark Is Rising most of all. For as much as I love California, for as much as I’ve anchored my fiction here, the English Midwinter Mode speaks to me deeply; but/and I’m conscious of the fact that I can’t set a story like these in a place like this.
It’s a puzzle.
Midway through The Face in the Frost, I sighed inwardly and thought, as I have thought many times before: I love this kind of story. But you really have to be English to pull it off. You need to have steeped in it, not just read *The Dark Is Rising ten times. It’s got to be real experience, not just reheated porridge. What IS porridge, even??*
Then, I finished the book, did some light googling, and learned: John Bellairs was born in Michigan!
A different Twitter conversation reminded me of this terrific number from the Bollywood movie Don. It is totally joyous and will definitely improve your day.
I’m an ardent fan of Shah Rukh Khan—an unremarkable statement; “yeah, you and three billion others”—and while Don definitely isn’t my favorite SRK movie (that would be Swades), this is a top-three scene. There was a period, years back, when I watched it at least once a day.
Here are the translated lyrics, along with some useful context re: the festival depicted.
This piece on the value of owning paper books is provocative and informative, even for people already 100% convinced of the value of owning paper books!
Behold: the poem in which Gerard Manley Hopkins coined the terms “shivelight” and “shadowtackle”:
Down roughcast, down dazzling whitewash / wherever an elm arches,
Shivelights and shadowtackle ín long / lashes lace, lance, and pair.
On a wooded path, “shivelight” is (we infer) the light that falls through the net of branches, with “shadowtackle” the inverse, the shadows of the branches themselves. That’s “tackle” as in a ship’s—the rigging that hangs between the masts and sails.
(Yes, I am obviously naming a pair of characters Shivelight and Shadowtackle.)
I read a great piece in the New Yorker this week, but I’m not going to link to it, because… you already know there’s great stuff in the New Yorker. Go find it on your own! Or get the link from Those Other Newsletters. I don’t point you to material in major newspapers for the same reason. You don’t need me for that.
Here is a roaring polemic about software! I don’t think I agree with it, but I definitely enjoyed reading it, and this, just on its own, is an amazing paragraph:
The problem is that the web invited in two generations of programmers who somehow believed that this perverse ecosystem was sane and that wasting their own time and the resources of the computers their stuff was running on was natural. It’s as though the video game industry decided that laser printers were the natural devices on which to write and play first person shooter games, and invested twenty years into making laser printers that printed faster, used thinner paper, and came with rumble pads.
This is from the same author who wrote Stories I Will Not Write, which I recommended in a previous newsletter. What a mind!
Far up the coast, in the bright gradient flow of the Automatic City, Jack Clark writes the essential weekly briefing on new developments in artificial intelligence.
Honestly… I can’t claim this one for our little republic of newsletters. It plays for bigger stakes. People who make important decisions about AI tools and policy read Jack’s email. He testified before Congress!
And, I have to say, if you’re concerned about the future of AI, here is something that should hearten you, just a bit: Jack Clark is the ideal person to be keeping this particular gate. He’s brilliant, curious, and deeply moral. It’s honestly a little bit unbelievable that a person of his quality has taken up this work with such energy and success; in this respect, at least, our splinter timeline is a lucky one.
Jack is also creative! Along with the week’s news, every email includes a tiny gem of a science fiction story. Or, not a story, exactly; more like a scene. A conjuring. A glimpse.
Jack’s most recent story/scene/thing was one of my favorites so far, which is saying a lot. Scroll down to where it says “Dream Mountain.”
(If you are new-ish to this dispatch: I recently recapped all of my email newsletter recommendations so far. Here’s your map of the republic.)
This is one of the most amazing YouTube videos I’ve ever seen. It’s from a purveyor of science explainers, and what he explains in this video is… YouTube itself! On the heels of a smash runaway hit, this YouTuber, rather than bask in his tens of millions of views, decided to pull in close and ask: how did this happen?
His investigation of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm (and its effect on video producers like him) is simultaneously super fun and totally unsparing. And the fact that it’s on YouTube itself is somehow thrilling; the same argument exactly, printed as text on a website, wouldn’t have the same oomph.
If you have ever selected a video recommended in YouTube’s sidebar—and I know you have—this video is absolutely worth your time. It might be essential.
Ha—I actually thought this was going to be a short one!
July 2019, Oakland