Posts Tagged ‘Whole Earth Catalog’
As I mentioned yesterday, the day after Thanksgiving, I found myself the proud new owner of the Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. I was all set to sit down with my prize, but unfortunately, fate had other plans: the following day, I was on a plane to Hong Kong, and spent the next two weeks traveling there and in China. And while it was a wonderful trip, I have to admit that my thoughts occasionally strayed back home, where my dictionary was patiently waiting. Upon my return, then, I threw down my suitcase and all but tore into the dining room—the only place in the house with a table large enough to comfortably accommodate this kind of work—for some quality time with the OED. (My sister-in-law says that this serves as ample proof that I’m a huge nerd, which will surely come as a surprise to this blog’s regular readers.)
A few words about the Compact OED itself. As many of you probably know, the Compact Edition contains all the material of the twelve-volume Oxford English Dictionary, with the text photographically reduced so that four pages fit on each regular page of the two-volume version, to be read with an included magnifying glass. The copy I purchased is the second edition, not the third, which means that it lacks the supplements and updates that the dictionary has acquired since 1971. All the same, these updates comprise maybe five percent of the dictionary’s total length, and the older edition may actually be more useful for my purposes: with the four-up format, I can just about read the text even without the magnifying glass, while the latest edition is nine-up, making the type too small to browse conveniently.
And you need to be able to browse in this dictionary, which is a browser’s paradise. Opening it now at random, I’m at a loss as to where to begin: there’s Duumvirate, Dwale, and close to a whole page devoted to variations on Dwarf, with citations ranging from the year 1450 (“that wretchit dorche”) to 1846 (“If a dwarf on the shoulders of a giant can see further than the giant, he is no less a dwarf in comparison to the giant”). Turning to another page, we have Mithridatic, Mitraille (“Small missiles, as fragments of iron, heads of nails, etc. shot in masses from a cannon”), and Mitre (“A headband or fillet worn by ancient Greek women; also, a kind of head-dress common among Asiatics, the wearing of which by men was regarded by the Romans as a mark of effeminacy”). And these are just a few pages chosen randomly out of more than sixteen thousand. The result isn’t just a dictionary, but an entire world, at least the part described in English, and it offers a lifetime’s worth of exploration.
Clearly, I’m addicted: reading this dictionary makes me feel as if I’ll never need to do anything else. Steve Jobs once called the Whole Earth Catalog “Google in paperback form,” and the Compact OED, in this wonderfully browsable edition, gives me something of the same sensation: each page opens up onto new horizons, with one word leading to another, and to unexpected byways of etymology, history, and literature—as big as the Web, but richer and more nourishing. The result seems less like a book than a living being, vibrating with possibility even as it sits reassuringly on the shelf. Whether or not it will enhance my vocabulary remains to be seen, but it’s already had a fertilizing effect on my imagination. Perhaps it will for you as well, or for someone you love. After all, Christmas is coming. What better gift could there be?
I was born in Castro Valley, California, a pleasant but nondescript part of the Bay Area whose greatest attraction to me, at least in my teenage years, was that it was only a forty minute BART ride away from downtown Berkeley. Growing up, I assumed that I would attend college there, and although my education took me a bit farther afield, I still spent many of the weekend and summer afternoons of my adolescence exploring the areas around Telegraph and Shattuck. And though I haven’t lived in the Bay Area for more than a decade now, I’ve been shaped by Berkeley in ways I’m only now beginning to realize, not so much the Berkeley of my own childhood as a version in my imagination, which reached its ideal shape—at least in the story that I like to tell myself—in the ten years or so before I was born.
The landmark that connected my imaginary Berkeley with the one I explored as a teenager was the old UC Theater. This was the theater where Werner Herzog ate his shoe, where an ongoing festival of Hong Kong movies ran every Thursday for years, and where The Rocky Horror Picture Show played at midnight (never seen, alas, by me). It’s also where I had many of my favorite movie memories: I saw the complete Indiana Jones trilogy here, and Judy Garland in A Star is Born, and Lawrence of Arabia, and Spike & Mike’s Sick & Twisted Festival. I can remember John Waters’s anti-smoking announcement nearly word for word. And the theater’s closing ten years ago remains one of the small, indelible tragedies of my life. If Berkeley can’t sustain a place like this, I asked myself, then how are art house revival theaters supposed to survive anywhere? (The similar struggles of the Brattle in Cambridge have only increased my pessimism.)
So what else resides in the Berkeley of my imagination? There’s Chez Panisse, of course, where Alice Waters helped Herzog cook his shoe (slowly, in garlic and duck fat). There’s the Whole Earth Catalog, which was rooted in Sausalito but whose heart belongs in Berkeley. There’s the epic Plan of St. Gall project of Walter Horn and Ernest Born, which evolved concurrently with Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language—the best, most essential book of the last fifty years, and one utterly saturated by its time and place. There’s Robert Anton Wilson, in his house in the hills above the Berkeley campus. And, not incidentally, there are also my parents, who would have been around my own age—or even somewhat younger—at the time I’m talking about.
Like I said, I haven’t lived in the Bay Area in a long time. And the Berkeley I’m describing may never have existed, except in my own mind. But as I look back at my life, which has taken me to some extraordinary places—Harvard, New York, Chicago, and beyond—I feel as if my philosophy, such as it is, was really shaped here. Calling it a “philosophy” might be taking it too far: it’s really nothing more than an interest in whole systems, an inclination toward voluntary simplicity (in life, not in thought), and a nose for the weird, esoteric, and neglected. It’s an instinct that sends me regularly to used bookstores, always trying to recreate my first experience of Moe’s. And whatever it is, it has outlasted all kinds of other, passing infatuations, so that I still carry a bit of Berkeley with me wherever I go.
I am going to build a church some day. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.
Randomness has been used as a creative tool for a long time. (Leonardo Da Vinci recommended that painters generate ideas by splashing paint on a piece of paper and seeing what images were suggested by the random shapes.) It’s a way of forcing the brain to be ingenious: we’re all very good at seeing connections between unrelated objects, or patterns where there really are none. Intentional randomness is the easiest way to put this ability to useful work.
At the earliest stages of a project, randomness can be used to generate ideas for an entire story. The plots for the three novelettes I’ve sold to Analog, for example, all came about in the same way: I leafed through a pile of science magazines (usually Discover, but sometimes Scientific American), chose two or three articles essentially at random, and tried to figure out what the subjects might have in common. “The Last Resort,” for example, arose from the juxtaposition of two unrelated articles, one about the snakes of Narcisse, the other about the tragedy of Lake Nyos. “Kawataro,” which is scheduled to come out next year, originated in a similar way.
For a novel, which can take up a year or more of your time, the underlying idea will probably not be the result of such a mechanical process (although I’ve done this, too). Once you have a plot, though, you can use intentional randomness to enrich your outline. For a while, I would cast a hexagram of the I Ching for every scene I wrote, looking at the result and trying to figure out how it applied to the current chapter. (At least two editions of the I Ching have been published specifically for writers, although the Wilhelm translation is probably still the best.) I haven’t done this in a while, mostly because I found the I Ching to be a little too vague, but it’s certainly worth a try.
More recently, I’ve taken to doing something similar with A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse by Ted Hughes, which is admirably suited for this approach. It’s an anthology of 218 numbered quotations from Shakespeare, selected by Hughes, presented without context or comment. When I’m brainstorming a chapter, I’ll choose a quotation at random—ideally with a random number generator—and then try to see how the passage might apply to the scene at hand. And I’ll almost always come up with an unusual angle or insight into the story that I wouldn’t have stumbled across any other way.
This technique (which sometimes verges on bibliomancy) is especially useful when combined with a mind map. I’ll write a single guiding word on the page, generate a Shakespeare quotation, and write it down beneath the central word. I’ll then noodle for a while with that particular passage before moving on to less structured brainstorming.
If this sounds a little mechanical, well, it is. And I don’t claim that it works for everyone. But over the past few years, it has become an essential part of my writing process.