Week 43, popular, wide-ranging, functional


“A lucky deal, or, The cutest boy in Wall Street,” Fame and Fortune Weekly, 1905

I’ve been reading Philip Pullman’s new novel, The Secret Commonwealth, which continues the story started in His Dark Materials, an all-time favorite. I’m only halfway through, but/and I have two observations; these might constitute very minor spoilers, so skip ahead if you fear such:

  • For all of Pullman’s prodigious imagination, all the creatures he has conjured, the engine of all these adventures is, and has always been, his invention of the daemon: the soul outside the body. It’s just so vivid, so fun, so rich. And here, in The Secret Commonwealth, Pullman does things with daemons that are new, and it’s almost absurd; like, all these years have passed, all these pages, and still this fictional fuel isn’t spent? Incredible. Sometimes, a writer finds a rod of uranium.

  • There’s a psychological darkness to The Secret Commonwealth that’s new to Pullman’s world. In this book, Lyra Belacqua is twenty years old, an adult, and she is struggling, not least with (here we go) her daemon, Pan. In all the previous books, Lyra and Pan have been the great conspiracy at the center: and so, here, to see them estranged… again, it’s just so rich: this is the young adult wondering who she is even, the writer betrayed by his muse, and, honestly, it’s the experience of depression. I would not be surprised to learn that Philip Pullman has experienced severe depression in his life; maybe even in the years between His Dark Materials and these new books. It’s a very precise rendering, and the best use of metaphor: a strange imagining that allows you to see something real with new clarity.

I liked last year’s La Belle Sauvage a lot, but/and this one is something else entirely. And, I should add, as further recommendation: The Secret Commonwealth makes it clear that all Pullman’s daemon books are, on some level, spy novels. Just like Kim, his avowed inspiration!

From the Hundred Rabbits

I stumbled across this lovely one-bit artwork on Twitter, then realized the source was a person I’ve known about for a while: one of two who comprise Hundred Rabbits, an oceangoing… design… lab? I really have no idea how to label them, or their project: just look.

The most accurate thing to say is that they appear to be characters from a Warren Ellis comic.

The really notable thing—and truly, I’ve never seen anything like this, anywhere—is the documentation of a hundred overlapping, interlocking projects, including programming languages and design tools. Just choose a link at random and explore. It’s dizzying. They might be characters from a Borges story, too.

There’s more than a bit of performance to all this, but that is A-OK with me. Because: what a weird, fascinating, singular performance.

After college, I started a job at a place called the Poynter Institute, which has an interesting history:

In St. Petersburg, Florida, there is a large, independent local newspaper. In his later years, its publisher, Nelson Poynter, decided not to leave the company to his heirs (who he did not trust to keep it safe from the voracious national newspaper chains) but rather to a newly-formed organization; he called it the Modern Media Institute, but it was renamed the Poynter Institute after his death. The organization’s chief objective was, and is, to keep the newspaper independent; but then, it was additionally charged with the task of reinvesting the paper’s profits back into American journalism. (And those profits were significant, at the time the institute was established: this was pre-internet.)

So, a pilgrimage to the Poynter Institute became a common experience for newspaper reporters and editors all over the country, and one of the great draws was the institute’s writing faculty, and a key member of that writing faculty was Chip Scanlan.

Those newspaper writers and editors got to hang out for a few days, maybe a week; I was there all year, and honestly, it is from Poynter’s faculty, Chip foremost, that I learned how to write. If you’ve ever enjoyed one of my novels, thank Chip Scanlan, and thank Nelson Poynter, too. It’s all connected.

Chip has just launched a new website and newsletter; if the craft of writing—truly, the craft; the carpentry of it—is something that interests you, both are worth your time. Recently, I did a short interview with him, answering three pointed questions; beware, a giant head o’ Sloan awaits on the other side of that link!

I’m pretty sure it was from Chip that I first learned about the “watcher at the gates”: the critic in your head who evaluates in realtime as you put a draft onto the page, murmuring “oh no, that’s not good enough” and “really? You want to say it like that?” and “youuu suuuck.” As a writer, you’re going to struggle, and struggle, and struggle, until you send this watcher home: not permanently, of course—you’ll need critical self-evaluation later—but temporarily. You can’t write with “youuu suuuck” in your ear.

And fortune!

“A diamond in the rough, or, A brave boy's start in life,” Fame and Fortune Weekly, 1905

An enormous archive of dime novels supplies this week’s art, via Dan Cohen.

Just look at all these.

This archive makes me feel a bit melancholy, because it shows print in one of its most powerfully “mass” incarnations: popular, wide-ranging, functional. That’s the slot taken by streaming video now; there’s no denying it. The only modern equivalent to these dime novels, in print, is manga. I’m curious to know whether that format’s popularity will persist for many decades to come, or if there’s a window closing there, too…

I knew this Rubik’s Cube-solving robot was going to be fast… but I didn’t know it was going to be this fast.

Motion studies using trails of light to analyze (and optimize) workers’ movements… in 1913!

I love and hate this formulation from an adventurous publisher in Lawrence, Kansas:

What types of publications do you put out?

Simply: books that know they are books. I am not interested in stories or characters. That type of work has enough homes. I look for books that simply exist, as books. I describe it as literature in the expanded field, after Rosalind Krauss. To be this they typically are aberrant linguistically, formally, or just otherwise heterogenous or unclassifiable. The thinking is very much in the tradition of some of the outer limits of the Nouveau Roman movement, especially Michel Butor and his post-novel work. I take to the extreme Umberto Eco’s discussion of the open work, looking for books that are the equivalent of his chalk frame drawn around a crack in the wall. The best book is apparent as a book but is truly a continuation of the surface of the desk, or the quilt, or the grass in the park.

“The best book is apparent as a book but is truly a continuation of the surface of the desk, or the quilt, or the grass in the park”!!

I mean, you understand my reaction, right? Horrifying, but… there’s something there. The best kind of provocation.


“A rise in life, or, The career of a factory boy,” Fame and Fortune Weekly, 1906

Our friends Dafna and Jesse, who operate the very successful INNA Jam nearby, have, in the last year or so, discovered, or rediscovered, the power of the sidewalk sandwich board. Now, their hand-painted placards beckon on corners in a three-block radius around their jam factory, and reliably lure new customers in from the sidewalk.

I wish starting physical businesses was easier; I wish the path wasn’t so steep, especially in places like the Bay Area; because I think it’s one of the absolute best things a person can do. Among many other things, a physical business enlivens public space, by making the simple, eloquent statement: I am here, working.

There’s a scientific glassblowing studio north of us; I walk past it on the sidewalk often. By simply existing, and having a nice sign that faces the street, they are doing a small public service every day. We are here, working.

In the same light industrial complex as the Murray Street Media Lab, there’s a woodworking shop, and the man who runs it always keeps his door propped open. Simple as that. What a delight, every damn day, to ride my bike past that door and peek inside and see all his tools, the boards stacked up for whatever commission he’s undertaking. I am here, working.

Part of the problem of social media is that there is no equivalent to the scientific glassblowers’ sign, or the woodworker’s open door, or Dafna and Jesse’s sandwich boards. On the internet, if you stop speaking: you disappear. And, by corollary: on the internet, you only notice the people who are speaking nonstop.

If you could put on magic internet goggles that enabled you to see through this gnarly selection bias and view the composition of reality fairly, correctly—well, just come walk around Emeryville and West Berkeley. It would look like that! All the tumult of Twitter would shrink into a single weird cafe—just a speck, in an enormous city made up entirely of people quietly working.


October 2019, Oakland

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