Week 46, the soul of the steel man

Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses

Still Life with a Ginger Jar and Eggplants, Paul Cézanne, 1893–94

I’ve been driving a lot, mostly in a very big truck with a very small radio. My go-to station in the Bay Area is 103.7, all 80s all the time.

On Sundays, the station does something remarkable; or, it seems remarkable to me: they replay 80s-era episodes of American Top 40. They just: play them straight through! It’s a time machine. You hear Casey Kasem introducing acts now well-known as if they’re new and strange. And some of the acts (especially near the top of the countdown) are new and strange to me: the ones who didn’t reach escape velocity from the 80s to achieve a stable orbit in Every Wedding Playlist Ever. The show is hours long, totally dorky and credulous. It’s great.

These replays offer one of the most mainstream experiences of an archive I’ve ever encountered. There’s nothing dusty or academic about it, and yet, it is a journey into the stacks, an encounter with the past, almost a kind of historical role-playing—every Sunday on this corporate radio station!

I feel like iHeartRadio runs an identical 80s station in every big metro area; I could be wrong. Give it a look. The replays are a fun thing to listen to on a Sunday.

I’m up at 5 a.m. to write this newsletter before I climb into that truck again in search of MORE OLIVES.

You’re familiar, probably, with the notion of a “straw man” argument. That’s when you characterize your opponent’s position in an intentionally flawed way, then proceed to criticize it on the basis of those flaws. It sucks.

The opposite is the “steel man.” That’s when you articulate the absolute strongest version of your opponent’s position—potentially even stronger than the one they presented. (I wrote about this, and explained it in more detail, several years ago.)

One of the key characteristics of a steel man is that it must satisfy your opponent. Upon hearing your version of their position, they must say: “Well… yes. That’s it exactly!” I learned about this from the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, which, every so often, hosts a debate:

It might be about nuclear power or synthetic biology or perhaps the very notion of human progress—high-stakes stuff. But the format is nothing like the showdowns on cable news or the debates in election season.

Instead, it goes like this:

There are two debaters, Alice and Bob. Alice takes the podium, makes her argument. Then Bob takes her place, but before he can present his counter-argument, he must summarize Alice’s argument to her satisfaction—a demonstration of respect and good faith. Only when Alice agrees that Bob has got it right is he permitted to proceed with his own argument—and then, when he’s finished, Alice must summarize it to his satisfaction.

I mean: that’s pretty great.

In last week’s newsletter, I made an argument related to a dispute between the publisher Macmillan and the American Library Association. (A refresher: at issue is Macmillan’s policy change—now in effect—that restricts libraries to just one “copy” of new e-books for the first eight weeks of their publication.) In short order, I got several replies arguing the ALA’s position. These replies were, without exception, thoughtful, passionate, and compelling—honestly, a gift to receive and read.

Now, I want to set up a steel man of my own. You already know my position; it was in last week’s newsletter. Here is the other side, articulated as strongly (and as concisely) as I can muster.

This is fundamentally about access. For many readers, particularly readers who depend on public libraries—the vision-impaired, the homebound—e-books aren’t just one format among many, a convenience; they make reading possible. They are essential.

The Macmillan embargo on new e-books therefore divides readers sharply along lines of ability and mobility. It says, to these readers specifically: you are in a less important class. You can wait.

And, if waiting eight weeks doesn’t sound that onerous to you, it’s probably because you understand that, if you really can’t wait for a library e-book, you can always buy one yourself. That’s not an option for everyone, and certainly not for the people who depend most on public libraries.

There’s context here. The economics of e-books are terrible for libraries—a treadmill of payments. And beyond that, there are whole categories of digital content that libraries aren’t even allowed to purchase. Netflix doesn’t offer accounts to libraries; neither does Spotify. More and more information and culture is being produced totally outside the sphere of library access.

You can’t evaluate this policy change without considering that larger picture. Libraries must fight this passionately or risk watching other publishers and content providers follow Macmillan’s lead. Eight weeks might become six months, might become a year, might become “wait, why are we allowing libraries to circulate this stuff at all?”

Your public library isn’t just a cozy room full of books. It is, in fact, a radical institution, dedicated to the proposition that everyone in a democratic society should have equal access to information and culture. That’s the big “everyone”—bigger than you imagine.

Libraries oppose Macmillan’s policy change because they believe in this urgent, necessary proposition.

That is… a very compelling argument!

So compelling, in fact, that I feel like I want to counter it immediately. I want to do that because, if I let it sit, it starts to sound right. This is the soul of the steel man! As I wrote before:

This kind of writing is dangerous because it goes beyond (mere) argumentation; it becomes immersion, method acting, dual-booting. To make your argument strong, you have to make your opponent’s argument stronger. You need sharp thinking and compelling language, but you also need close attention and deep empathy. I don’t mean to be too woo-woo about it, but truly, you need love. The overall sensibility is closer to caregiving than to punditry.

And it’s true: I do love my opponents in this debate. I love librarians!

I still believe there is a strong counter-argument, but: I’m not going to make it. Instead, I’m going to invite you—if you agree with my steel man above—to make it yourself. Summon that “close attention and deep empathy.” Take three minutes and articulate, in your mind, the strongest possible case for Macmillan’s policy change.

I really want to make that argument!! But, I trust you to do it for me.

Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses

Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, Paul Cézanne, ca. 1890

I know I linked to these custom, “cel-shaded” Transformers toys once already, but ARE YOU KIDDING ME?? This is legitimately excellent postmodern art. Somebody put these in a museum.

Look at the SPINES of these books! They are all from Unsung Stories in the UK, new to me. I love a publisher with a consistent trade dress.

Things move fast: now you can make model rockets with vectored thrust, just like the ones Space X launches.

An academic conference on anime at Waseda University. This would be so fun to attend.

This Name of the Rose-themed background noise generator is… well, just reflect on the amazingness of the phrase “Name of the Rose-themed background noise generator,” which is really all the recommendation it requires. (That link is via the Convivial Society, part of the Republic of Newsletters.)

I noted this line in a book last night; by Li Shangyin, from an untitled poem, ca. 9th century:

The stirrings in your heart, do not seek their bloom. An inch of desire is an inch of ash.

The book is Adam Brookes’ Spy Games, which I’ve been reading in bed this week before conking out, and which… would have benefitted from a better title? I loved the first book in this series, called Night Heron—see, a title like that!—and there’s a third that I’ll read sometime next year. These are interesting, well-written, hyper-contemporary spy stories; recommended.

Via Laura Olin’s newsletter, a definition of the novel from Elif Batuman:

The novel is a constantly evolving technology, always finding ways to convey more reality, to articulate more truths, to identify new equivalences. Underlying this project is the optimistic belief that seeing the world more clearly can make individuals more free, and societies more just.

I like this a lot, and I also think it’s wrong. (Which is great, by the way: if there’s anything that deserves multiple interpretations, multiple definitions, it’s the novel.)

I think a novel is fundamentally a packaged dream.

More than any other medium—far more than movies or TV, more even than comics—I think the experience, in the brain, of reading a novel is the experience of a dream. The fact that you can read all of Anna Karenina—or Sourdough, for that matter—and feel like you know the protagonist, and only later realize she was never described at all, is what makes this clear: because that’s how a dream works, too. It can be so vivid, so real—and then you wake up and realize it was barely there, more omission than not. Dreams are amazing, and I think novels, because they make analogous experiences repeatable and shareable, might be even more amazing.

Some novels might, additionally, convey reality, articulate truth, identify equivalences—but I don’t think that’s the essence of the medium.

Here’s Patrick Tanguay quoting Umberto Eco:

[Eco] uses Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Curtiz’s Casablanca to show that cult classics are cults “precisely because they are basically ramshackle, or ‘unhinged,’ so to speak.” It’s their imperfectness, the disjointed parts, that gives fans something to attach to, something to remember, something to cite. A perfect movie is its own thing, with no random phrase or imperfection to hold on to.

This is so, so interesting; honestly, it cracks something open for me, about the kind of work I like, and maybe the kind of work I want to produce.

I’ve said this before, but: perhaps the great surprise and satisfaction of publishing two novels has been the experience of translation. I’ve produced a lot of other media, in a lot of other shapes, but, almost without exception, that media is available in English and English alone. (Case in point: this newsletter!)

By contrast, one of the things you get when you pipe work through a somewhat formalized market (instead of just publishing it yourself on the internet) is access to a “supply chain” not just physical but intellectual, and sometimes—not always, but sometimes—that supply chain involves the possibility of translation.

I’m thinking about this because my friend Patrick, creative director of the game Neo Cab that you’ve heard plenty about from me, is in Guangzhou at a video game show. He writes:

Favorite moment: a girl who played on Day 1 brought her friends back the next day..… watching her explain the Feelgrid to them, with so much emotion, in Mandarin, blew my mind a little bit.

Neo Cab was initially going to be released only in English, but its inclusion in Apple Arcade (see: formalized market) necessitated its very rapid translation into fifteen (!) different languages. So, on day one, the game was available to players not only in English but also German, Spanish, Turkish, Mandarin, and on and on.

Speaking of translation! I got this book in the mail the other day:

Kiki's Delivery Service, THE BOOK

It’s the novel that inspired Studio Ghibli’s movie by the same name, which, as I have mentioned previously, is my favorite of all time. I can’t wait to read it.

Meanwhile, there’s something wrong with this cover. Can you spot it?

I’ll give you a second. Look closely.

THAT’S RIGHT! The translator’s name isn’t included!! Which is flatly unacceptable. Translators are co-authors; their names must be printed on the cover, and on the title page, too. Non-negotiable.

I’ll just tell you: the translator of this new English edition of Kiki’s Delivery Service, arriving in mid-2020, is the great Emily Balistrieri!

News from the Republic

From reader Stephen Carradini, co-host with Chris Krycho of the podcast Winning Slowly (which looks great), comes this description of Matthew Ogle’s recurring newsletter Pome:

In the Republic of Newsletters, Pome is the wandering sage who shows up in your town without warning… and leaves without warning.

He is exactly right, and: Pome has come to town.

Still Life with Apples and Pears

Still Life with Apples and Pears, Paul Cézanne, 1891–92

Cézanne’s a bit basic, I know, but the scenes are lovely, and I wanted something colorful, and he did say, “With an apple, I want to astonish Paris,” which might be the all-time great artist’s statement.

Okay I gotta hit the road! Casey Kasem awaits!


November 2019, Oakland

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