Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for February 2013

The golden braid of Douglas Hofstadter

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geb

When I was growing up, if needed something new to read, I’d just head for the garage. My parents owned hundreds, possibly thousands of books, and there were never enough shelves for them all, so the same dozen cardboard boxes followed us from house to house, rarely, if ever, being unpacked. (Some of them are still there, untouched, after twenty years, and a visit to my parents’ house isn’t complete before I’ve had a chance to go through them yet again.) Rummaging through these boxes was like browsing through a great, if eclectic, used bookshop, and the quality of serendipity I love in such stores was multiplied tenfold—I just never knew what I was going to find. Quite a few of those discoveries have probably ended up on my own shelves, absorbed by now into the rest of my library, to the point where I no longer remember where they came from. And my inner life has been enormously shaped by the authors I found there, which only serves to illustrate the point that if there are books anywhere in a house, a true reader will always find them, like a junkie in search of a fix.

One book in particular sticks in my mind, if only because it influenced so much of what came afterward. When I was in seventh grade, my father was browsing in a carton of books—I can’t remember why—and came up with a copy of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s Metamagical Themes, which he said I might like, mostly because of Hofstader’s discussion of the Rubik’s Cube. I liked those chapters a lot, but loved the rest of the book even more, and it’s followed me on every move I’ve made since—I’m looking at my original copy as I write this. It’s pretty worn and tattered by now, and just leafing through it takes me back, as much as any book I own, to the period of ferocious reading that I wrote about yesterday. Metamagical Themas, a collection of Hofstadter’s columns for Scientific American, led me inevitably to Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and The Mind’s I, and what I found there dazzled me so much that I ended up dedicating my school project that year—an autobiography, printed on dot matrix paper, that ran a hundred pages or more—to Hofstadter himself.

Douglas R. Hofstadter

Who was this guy, anyway? Then as now, Hofstadter was a professor of cognitive science at Indiana University in Bloomington, and his work was my first exposure to a kind of writing that I’ve since come to love passionately: the eccentric, unabashedly nerdy attempt to fuse science and the humanities into something that isn’t quite either, but draws on the best qualities of both. Even now, I don’t think I’ve quite made it through every page of Gödel, Escher, Bach, but what I found there, and in Hofstadter’s other work, has stuck with me ever since. Among other things, he was my first introduction to Zen, self-reference, the Codex Seraphianus, the Skeptical Inquirer, Alan Turing, Magritte, Nabokov’s notes on Eugene Onegin, James Falen’s translation of the same, and countless other authors and concepts I’ve been mulling over ever since, not to mention the larger subjects of consciousness and artificial intelligence. The range of his references is so rich, in fact, that he was later compelled to write another—and somewhat less interesting—book, I Am a Strange Loop, to clarify what he was trying to say in the first place.

I discovered Hofstadter in the same year as Umberto Eco, and they’ve acted on my life in similar ways, one on the side of science, the other of literature. (From an intellectual standpoint, it’s likely that ninety percent of what I care about as an adult was formed in middle school, although those aren’t exactly years I’d like to revisit.) Both are polymaths who opened me up to surprising influences and countless other books, and if my decision to major in classics in college was ultimately due to Eco, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take also a long hard look at cognitive neuroscience. Since then, I’ve become more aware of Hofstader’s limitations—his own translation of Eugene Onegin is a misguided vanity project of the worst kind—but I remain in awe of his brilliance and intellectual omnivorousness. The book of his I treasure the most is Le Ton beau de Marot, which came out when I was a college freshman, leading to many late evenings in my dorm, with my roommate and I trading rival translations of “Ma Mignonne.” There are other writers I’ve come to love more, but few who fill me with such gratitude. If you haven’t read his stuff, you might want to give it a try—he might change your life, too.

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February 28, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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February 28, 2013 at 7:30 am

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A reader’s family tree

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A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle

When we think of our favorite books, we tend to picture a tidy shelf or a ranked list, but they’re really more like a family tree, with authors sprouting haphazardly from those who came before. In my case, the first books I remember loving with a fanboy’s passion were the works of Charles Schulz. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house filled with vintage Peanuts paperbacks, which meant that even as the strip was starting its long daily decline, I was reading one of the great extended works of art of the twentieth century. What caught me was its tone: it was immediately appealing to kids, but written for adults, with storylines that were a complicated mix of psychology, whimsy, and despair. (I remember surprising my mother when I complained, at the age of nine, that I was suffering from a post-Christmas letdown.) In some ways, Peanuts set the stage for all that followed: it taught me that even as you’re caught up in the lives of fictional but maddeningly persuasive human beings, you can feel your mind expanding. The best years of the strip still make me feel that way, which is why I plan on introducing them to my own daughter as soon as she’s old enough to read on her own.

The next big branch consisted of a handful of authors who would be shelved these days in the young adult section: Madeleine L’Engle, Zilpha Keatley Snyder, Ellen Raskin, E.L. Konigsburg, and others, most of them women. L’Engle caught my attention first, and looking back, I think it’s because A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels were my introduction to serious science fiction, with astrophysics and relativity interwoven with ethics, theology, and family drama. I moved from there to fantasy—I don’t think any book has ever moved me as much as The High King—and the usual string of Hardy Boys adventures. (Oddly, I also read two authors who didn’t affect me nearly as much then as they did later. The Phantom Tollbooth only became my favorite children’s novel after I was already an adult and could appreciate how much wisdom it contained, and although I loved Sherlock Holmes, I didn’t become obsessed with him until I was about to go to college, and discovered William S. Baring-Gould’s incredible annotations.) And the writer who took me to the next level, as he has for so many others, was George Orwell: after Animal Farm and 1984, I knew there was no going back.

Stephen King's It

Next comes an author whose influence I’ve only recently begun to acknowledge, although he’s been a big part of my life for a long time. I read The Talisman somewhere at the beginning of middle school, and over the next year or so, I devoured most of the books from Stephen King’s classic period. These are still the novels I’d recommend to someone who wanted to get into the habit of reading for the first time: they still grab me as they did then, and they’ve aged far better than most popular fiction. King also marked a turning point in another important respect. Until then, I’d been reading the books that most teens my age or slightly older were reading, though perhaps with greater intensity, but now that my destiny had locked into place—I knew I wanted to be a writer—I found myself faced with many possible paths. It’s really only by chance that I stumbled next onto Umberto Eco: it could have been any number of other writers, and I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been if I’d been drawn to, say, Hemingway or Updike. In any case, I read The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum right when I was most vulnerable to being deeply influenced, and I’m still feeling the effects.

Later, in high school, I fell under the spell of Norman Mailer, as much for the life he seemed to embody as for the books he wrote. (I still haven’t read The Naked and the Dead, and the Mailer novels that made the biggest impression on me were those weird, monumental outliers Ancient Evenings and Harlot’s Ghost.) Borges came slightly later. Since then, the family tree seems to have smoothed itself out: there are many leaves, but fewer branches. Most of the books I now call my favorites are ones that I read during or after college, but although I’ll occasionally go through a period when I want to read everything an author has written—McEwan, Forsyth, Updike finally—the sense of a reading life that grows unchecked has mostly fallen away. It used to be a jungle; now it’s more like a garden, as I search out the great books that I’ve missed before and check off them off my list. I used to read like a child, and now I read like a grownup, or, worse, a writer. And that’s something of a loss. I still find books that excite me tremendously, even if I’ve been putting them off for years, but if I want to recover that early sense of contentment, I often pick up Conan Doyle, or King, or even Peanuts. But I’m always secretly hopeful that I’ll get that feeling again. The tree still has room to grow.

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February 27, 2013 at 9:50 am

Quote of the Day

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February 27, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Facts with a side of violence

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Frederick Forsyth

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been rereading The Dogs of War by Frederick Forsyth, my favorite suspense novelist. I’ve mentioned before that Forsyth is basically as good as it gets, and that he’s the writer I turn to the most these days in terms of pure enjoyment: he operates within a very narrow range of material and tone, but on those terms, he always delivers. Reading The Dogs of War again was a fascinating experience, because although it takes place in the world of mercenaries and other guns for hire, it contains surprisingly little action—maybe thirty pages’ worth over the course of four hundred dense pages. The rest of the novel is taken up by an obsessively detailed account of how, precisely, a privately funded war might be financed and equipped, from obtaining weapons to hiring a ship to acquiring the necessary amount of shirts and underwear. And although the amount of information is sometimes overwhelming, it’s always a superlatively readable book, if only because Forsyth is a master of organization and clarity.

Of course, it also works because it’s fun to learn about these things. The Dogs of War is perhaps the ultimate example of the kind of fiction that Anthony Lane, speaking of Allan Folsom’s The Day After Tomorrow, has dismissed as “not so much a novel as a six-hundred-page fact sheet with occasional breaks for violence.” Yet the pleasure we take in absorbing a few facts while reading a diverting thriller is perfectly understandable. Recently, I saw a posting on a social news site from a commenter who said that he didn’t read much, but was looking for novels that would teach him some things while telling an interesting story. I pointed him toward Michael Crichton, who is one of those novelists, like Forsyth, whose work has inspired countless imitators, but who remains the best of his breed. This kind of fiction is easy to dismiss, but conveying factual information to a reader is like any other aspect of writing: when done right, it can be a source of considerable satisfaction. In my own novels, I’ve indulged in such tidbits as how to build a handheld laser, how to open a Soviet weapons cache, and what exactly happened at the Dyatlov Pass.

Michael Crichton

That said, like all good things, the desire to satisfy a reader’s craving for information can also be taken too far. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the fiction of Irving Wallace, who crams his books with travelogues, dubious factoids, and masses of undigested research—along with a few clinical sex scenes—until whatever narrative interest the story once held is lost. And my feelings about Dan Brown are a matter of record. Here, as in most things, the key is balance: information can be a delight, but only in the context of a story that the reader finds engaging for the usual reasons. Its effectiveness can also vary within the work of a single author. Forsyth is great, but the weight of information in some of his later novels can be a little deadening; conversely, I’m not a fan of Tom Clancy, and gave up on The Cardinal of the Kremlin after struggling through a few hundred pages, but I found Without Remorse to be a really fine revenge story, hardware and all. The misuse of factual information by popular novelists has given it a bad reputation, but really, like any writing tool, it just needs to be properly deployed.

And it’s especially fascinating to see how this obsession with information—in a somewhat ambivalent form—has migrated into literary fiction. It’s hard to read Thomas Pynchon, for instance, without getting a kick from his mastery of everything from Tarot cards to aeronautical engineering, and James Wood points out that we see much the same urge in Jonathan Franzen:

The contemporary novel has such a desire to be clever about so many elements of life that it sometimes resembles a man who takes too many classes that he has no time to read: auditing abolishes composure. Of course, there are readers who will enjoy the fact that Franzen fills us in on campus politics, Lithuanian gangsters, biotech patents, the chemistry of depression, and so on…

Yet Franzen, like Pynchon, uses voluminous research to underline his point about how unknowable the world really is: if an author with the capacity to write limericks about the vane servomotor feels despair at the violent, impersonal systems of which we’re all a part, the rest of us don’t stand a chance. Popular novelists, by contrast, use information for the opposite reason, to flatter us that perhaps we, too, would make good mercenaries, if only we knew how to forge an end user certificate for a shipment of gun parts in Spain. In both cases, the underlying research gives the narrative a credibility it wouldn’t otherwise have. And the ability to use it correctly, according to one’s intentions, is one that every writer could stand to develop.

Quote of the Day

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Leopold Stokowski

I simply make music, and people have always been foolish enough to pay me for it. I never told them that I would have done it all for nothing.

Leopold Stokowski

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February 26, 2013 at 7:30 am

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Awake in the Dark

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Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

A movie, or any work of art, isn’t complete until someone sees it. Even the most modest studio film these days represents about two hundred years of collective work from the cast and crew, and when the result of their labor is projected on a screen in a darkened room, where it can shape and channel the emotions of a theater full of strangers, surprising things can happen. In Behind the Seen, Walter Murch compares this phenomenon to that of an old-fashioned radio tube, which takes a powerful but simple electrical current and combines it with a weak but coherent signal to transform it, say, into Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. A similar thing happens to an audience in a theater:

The power—the energy—isn’t coming from the film. It’s coming from the collective lives and emotional world of the audience. Say it’s a big theater—you have a thousand people there, and the average age of that audience is 25. You have 25,000 years, three times recorded history, sitting in the audience. That’s a tremendously powerful but unorganized force that is looking for coherence.

And the mark of a great movie is one that takes up an unexpected life, for better or worse, once it meets the undirected power of a large popular audience.

I’ve been thinking about this ever since finally seeing Zero Dark Thirty, which I think is unquestionably the movie of the year. (If I were to repost my list of the year’s best films, it would occupy the top slot, just ahead of The Dark Knight Rises and Life of Pi.) It’s an incredible work, focused, complex but always clear, and directed with remarkable assurance by Kathryn Bigelow, who tells an often convoluted story, but never allows the eye to wander. Yet it’s a film that seems likely to be defined by the controversy over its depiction of torture. This isn’t the place to respond to such concerns in detail, except to note that Bigelow and writer Mark Boal have already argued their own case better than anyone else. But it seems to me that many of the commentators who see the movie as an implicit endorsement of torture—”No waterboarding, no Bin Laden,” as Frank Bruni writes—are reading something into it that ignores the subtleties of the film’s own structure, which begins with enhanced interrogation and then moves beyond it.

Power and Coherence

But it’s a testament to the skill and intelligence of Bigelow, Boal, and their collaborators that they’ve given us a movie that serves as a blank slate, on which viewers can project their own fears and concerns. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t tell us what to think, and although some, like Andrew Sullivan, have taken this as an abdication of artistic responsibility, it’s really an example of the art of film at its height. It’s a movie for adults. So, in very different ways, are Lincoln and Django Unchained, which is why I’m not surprised by the slew of opinion pieces about the lack of “agency” in the black characters in Lincoln, or whether Django is really a story about a slave being saved by a white man. Such responses tell us more about the viewers than the movies themselves, and that’s fine—but we also need to recognize that movies that can evoke and sustain such questions are ultimately more interesting than films like Argo or Les Misérables, which reassure us at every turn about what we’re supposed to be feeling.

Needless to say, the Oscars have rarely rewarded this kind of ambiguity, which may be why Zero Dark Thirty had to content itself with a shared award for Best Sound Editing. And both Argo and Les Misérables are very good movies. But it takes remarkable skill and commitment to tell stories like this—and in particular, to give us all the satisfactions we crave from more conventional entertainment while also pushing forward into something darker. (That’s why many of our greatest, most problematic works of fiction tend to come from artists who have proven equally adept at constructing beautiful toys: Bigelow could never have made Zero Dark Thirty if she hadn’t already made Point Break.) When we’re sitting in the dark, looking for coherence, we’re at our must vulnerable, and when we’re faced with a movie that pushes our buttons while leaving us unsettled by its larger implications, it’s tempting to reduce it to something we can easily grasp. But in a medium that depends so much on the resonance between a work and its viewers, such films demand courage not just in the artist, but from the audience as well.

Written by nevalalee

February 25, 2013 at 9:50 am

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