This is an archived newsletter from Robin Sloan. You, too, can receive these! They go out every Sunday.

Week 5, some kind of shell of a crab

Federico de Vinciolo

Federico de Vinciolo, 1588; "design is printed upon a grid and illustrates the personification of Winter who kneels on the ground to warm his hands by a fire."

I mailed this year’s first print offering, “The Sleep Consultant,” to a considerable crew of readers last week. It found its way into scenes like this (thanks, Jessica)—

Jessica's view of The Sleep Consultant

—and scenes like this (thanks, Zeke!)—

Zeke's view of The Sleep Consultant

There will be another print offering in February, and subscribers to this list will hear about it first.

Last week, during my day of zine distribution, I sat peeling mailing labels and applying them to folded-up stories for about two hours, and during that time, I listened to this talk by Timothy Morton, a philosopher known for his affiliation with a movement called “object-oriented ontology” and his popularization of the term “hyperobject,” which is an object massively distributed in space and time. Notably, climate change is a hyperobject.

I found the lecture fun and absorbing, and I recommend it to anyone embarking on two hours of repetitive work! It starts a bit dense… and continues a bit dense… but if you squint through the density, you can see something very interesting.

There was one section that I appreciated in particular. It’s worth listening to the actual audio, which I’ve snipped out here, because it runs longer than what I’ll excerpt below, and Morton’s delivery is pleasant and engaging.

So, he’s talking about this idea, in object-oriented ontology, that objects have deep, intrinsic properties totally independent of their relationships to other objects and/or humans. This sounds like it could be frustrating, but Morton wants to say, nah, it’s not frustrating—it’s great!

To make his case, he brings in the image of the big, sprawling university research library. First, he acknowledges that a ton of funding and effort in these institutions goes toward supporting and improving access; a good library makes its contents available and useful to all sorts of different patrons and researchers, right? Right, Morton says! But, it also does—and is—something else:

As well as that, libraries are great big piles of shit that nobody looks at, and the better the library is, the more of that stuff there is, that nobody even saw, maybe not even the author. Like, Salman Rushdie might not even know what's in that Emory collection of some of his stuff. So, a collection of stuff in a library would be a great image of "withdrawn objects."

Because the whole point is, why do I just want a library for stuff that I know is there? If I'm doing a Ph.D, I want a library with stuff in it that I don't know is there! I actually want stuff, if I'm doing a Ph.D, that nobody knows is there. Maybe not even the collection knows it's there! Sure, yeah, the librarians are highly trained, and they know how to get me the box, but when I open the box, maybe there's some object in it---a book, a piece of wood, some kind of shell of a crab, I don't know what it is---nobody's ever seen it. Maybe the author didn't even know.

So the whole point of a library is to be a collection of objects that have no point whatsoever. This is why I think it's really beyond capitalism; there's no reason, there's no utilitarian, self-interest, rational-choice reason to have that great big pile of stuff that nobody looks at. But that's exactly why libraries are good---not because they contain a treasure trove of stuff you can see, but because they contain a treasure trove of stuff, period, that maybe nobody sees, for a million years.

I don’t know about you, but his enumeration of “a book, a piece of wood, some kind of shell of a crab” made me laugh out loud. That bit of imagination reveals, I think, a delightful mind; a mind that truly loves objects.

(An aside: after cutting out that audio clip, just before exporting, I squeezed its stereo tracks into one mono track… and found that something essential had been lost. It’s not like the original is super hi-fi, but the stereo field tells you you’re in the classroom with Timothy Morton and the grad students. It’s just much more inviting than the mono version which, by contrast, sounds dangerously like a droning lecture. Interesting!)

Nasca bowl

Nasca bowl, ca. 2nd-4th century

Year of the Meteor is part of a tiny Republic of Newsletters, the contours of which you will detect over the course of the year. Its neighbors include Alan Jacobs’s newsletter Snakes and Ladders, Alexis Madrigal’s 5IT, Joanne McNeil’s All My Stars, and Warren Ellis’s outstanding Orbital Operations, which remains the best ongoing chronicle of a working writer in the English language.

The Republic, if you would like to visualize it, is a small seaside town, just like the one in Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill:

From Up on Poppy Hill

High up on the hill lives the very smartest member of the Republic—he is a wizard, just about—who is named Charlie Loyd. His latest dispatch was a stunner, even by the very high standard he has established; I’m almost afraid to send you over, for fear you’ll never return. There are sections I could blockquote—want badly to blockquote—but blockquotes don’t do Wizard Loyd’s emails justice, because they are so organic, so clearly Made From Thoughts.

“It was an infrastructural hand raised for a high five that never came,” he writes. Go see what he means by that.

To close out, here are a couple more snapshots of “The Sleep Consultant” in the world. Thanks, Andrew—

Andrew's view of The Sleep Consultant

—and thanks, Warren:

Warren's view of The Sleep Consultant

To the long list of print’s super powers, add this: a print artifact, unlike a web page, when its reader is done with his coffee and ready for the next thing—it can get left behind. Possibly awaiting swift disposal, sure; but also possibly not. Who knows what might happen next?

Thanks for reading!


January 2019, Berkeley

Here, at the bottom of the page, I shall say again: the newsletter is the best way to keep up with new offerings.

This website uses the typeface Albertus Nova, an update by Toshi Omagari of Berthold Wolpe’s classic, and GT America, designed by Noël Leu with Seb McLauchlan.

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