In a Wall Street Journalarticle last week, Nicolas Carr detailed the pros and cons of infinitely editing e-books through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing service. “The endless malleability of digital writing” holds many attractions for Carr — historians can update their work with recent research, novelists can keep their fiction free of “the little anachronisms that can make even a recently published story feel dated.” What Carr worries readers and writers will lose, however, “is the sense of a book as a finished and complete object, a self-contained work of art.”
Let’s work backwards here. The “sense” of books as “finished and complete” or “self-contained” is precisely that — a sense and nothing more. For Christmas this year I purchased my mother a 75th anniversary edition of The Joy of Cooking, whose 500 new recipes displaced a handful of dishes that supposedly lack contemporary relevance. Nonfiction writers publish revised editions of their work all the time, or, in the case of a writer like Chuck Klosterman, print bonus essays when those volumes arrive in paperback.
Such malleability applies to fiction writers, too. In a 2008 interview, Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt asked Tobias Wolff if a final or “frozen” version of his work would ever hit shelves. Wolff responded: “Not as long as I can get at them again…. These stories have been in a continual state of evolution since I first wrote them, so there really never was that pristine text that I have betrayed by revising it.” For Wolff, each printed version of his work never represents “a self-contained work of art” — they’re new entries in an evolving organism.
When Wolff revises his fiction, he looks for sentences, phrases or words that no longer service the story the way he once thought they did, not Carr’s “little anachronisms” that allegedly date the piece detrimentally. Contrast Wolff’s discerning revisions to Allen Gribben’s replacement of “nigger” with “slave” in his updated version of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The response to Gribben’s edit was overwhelmingly negative, and rightfully so. The contemporary relevancy of Huck Finn is contingent on what Gribben considered an outdated or inappropriate noun for contemporary audiences. Twain’s language should evoke the time in which it was written, not the time in which we opted to tweak it.
Such amending does equal disservice to nonfiction. Carr is right to champion digital publishing for its swift correction of factual errors, but his eagerness for historians and biographers to continually alter their books in light of recent events again ignores our need for the outdated. When David Foster Wallace republished his 2000 article on John McCain in 2008, its inaccuracies were the key to its relevance — voters could compare the idealism of the 2000 Straight Talk Express McCain with the cynicism of his 2008 bid. That Wallace did not re-edit his work to reflect McCain’s change made his the writing all the more powerful. It was up to the reader to discern McCain’s transformation, not up to Wallace to point it out.
If books are “finished and complete” objects in any sense, they are complete pieces in the epic Wolffian evolutionary chart, where we can line up each published draft of a story and chronicle its growth and maturation from first to latest publication. When books go from “being stamped permanently on sheets of paper to being rendered temporarily on flickering screens,” as Carr eloquently puts it, we lose all sense of that progress. We need supposedly “self-contained,” outdated works to remind us of the process by which we arrived at the most accurate and contemporary works. If change becomes as easy as the rewriting of a digital document, we’ll only be able to see where we are. We’ll have no clue where we’ve been.
In the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joe Campbell provides a blueprint of his theory of hero archetypes and their various journeys, a term he coined the “monomyth”, which contains 17 stages that can generally be grouped into three different chronological groups: 1) Departure, 2) Initiation, 3) Return. “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder,” Campbell writes. “Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” It’s a thrilling and influential book, and the path he outlines is a familiar one, seen in narratives ever since people have been telling stories, from Buddha and Christ all the way to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
Last Sunday the Denver Broncos beat the Pittsburgh Steelers in a football game which was, to put it mildly, a pretty big fucking deal. By this point everyone (everyone) kind of knows why: Timothy Tebow, who is at once a barely mediocre quarterback (the stats back this up: his regular season QB rating of 72.9 puts him in the bottom tenth of the league, sandwiched between luminaries Colt McCoy and Rex Grossman), who somehow finds a way to win games. He is also a pop culture phenomenon (the stats back this up too: his game-winning overtime touchdown pass against Pittsburgh generated more tweets per second than the Royal Wedding and the death of Osama Bin Laden did combined), who has captivated the American conscience solely by rejecting it. He is a Christian, a virgin, and above-all an earnest football-playing robot — values that are no one’s idea of the perfect modern man.
As a Christian, his salvation lies in his beliefs. But as a cult figure, his salvation lies in his self-awareness. One of Campbell’s biggest principles is that of a hero and gained knowledge: Luke Skywalker starts on Tatooine, really having no idea about anything, and he ends up a Jedi amidst the rubble of an evil empire. Tim Tebow started out in the swamps of Florida, tossing pigskins and bible verses, and now he’s in Denver — but has he learned anything? There is something to be said about sticking with your convictions, but it is dangerously close to a hallmark of ignorance: a refusal to see any other reality. At this point Tebow is an outstanding cultural artifact, but it is hard to think of him as a human being, much less a hero.
Being stuck in the middle of something makes it near impossible to gain perspective, and, at the moment, there is no real way to discuss Tebow that isn’t either petty, sensationalist, or redundant — the closest anyone can get to grazing even a semblance of truth is to acknowledge that what is happening is a part of a much larger narrative. And that narrative has nothing to do with football.
In the past twenty years, funeral directors have had to transform from presenters of a failed organism, where the sensation of closure is manifest in the presence of the deceased body, to the arbitrators of the meaning of a secular life that has just been reduced to ash.
Or perhaps it is the peculiar completist mentality that is so prevalent amongst comedy fans (the pressure leading to the Arrested Development and Party Down movies are perfect examples of this). We’ve have been given plenty of material to build up our own images of Partridge and to see that image push back and take new forms is a wonderful thing.
I like to think that my breakfast menu is relatively eclectic, but if I’m being honest, when it’s 8 a.m. and I’m sitting at the kitchen table in my pajamas with a long day ahead of me, I’m a committed continentalist. After all, waffles, with their trademark grids, are the breakfast food most directly influenced by Descartes.
I woke up Tuesday morning frustrated. No eggs in the refrigerator to cook for breakfast, heaps of work left unfinished, 8.5% unemployed, no healthcare, rising debt, and still no idea of who to vote for in the New Hampshire primary. This last point puzzled me, as I’d been (for want of a better occupation) diligently following the campaign over the past few weeks. I had hoped to be able to waltz into my polling station and inscribe my prized first-in-the-nation X somewhere on a ballot and procure for myself a better future.
After over a year’s worth of sound bites, media profiles and polls, I was still in the dark. If I’d watched the campaign unfold but could still not grasp the policies of party hopefuls, how was I to lodge a vote in good conscience? I decided to go for a drive and count campaign signs.
35 Romney, 2 Buddy Roemer (who?), 21 Newt, 25 Huntsman, 30 Paul (weighted for size of signs), 0 Santorum, 4 Perry, 3 Obama (Oh, right, the Democratic primary. I forgot). That seemed as good a rubric as any, given the he-who-shouts-loudest coverage I’d so far been given to consider. The truth is, the viability of a candidate is tied to their visibility, and leading up to the primaries and even into them, visibility remains the only measure of any import. The American people are told, and not asked, who’s in the race. The voice of a candidate is amplified by the feedback loop of campaign/PAC dollars and media controlled events with stringent, and self-determined, qualification requirements until it reaches the shrieking decibel that marks the candidate as a ‘contender.’ Has anyone been asked by anyone other than a folksy, on-the-ground reporter at the Fareway whose voice they actually want to hear? Not really, no. Sure, there are the 16 thousand or so who pay the $30 meal ticket price for the privilege to vote in the quaint-sounding “Iowa Straw Poll”. Then comes the hermetically sealed soapbox oratory contest of the caucus which decides… who has the tallest soapbox to stand on going into the primaries?
The nature of these contests does little to stimulate the type of political discourse that would allow Americans to form opinions of party hopefuls. Candidates themselves are trying their hardest just to keep their heads above water long enough to sputter out a few words.
Admittedly, the New Hampshire primary receives the same ludicrous media attention given to those two other events, and there are many good reasons besides why this contest shouldn’t matter as much as it does. To name a few, New Hampshire is a little richer, a little more employed, and a lot whiter than the rest of the country. Two main points, however, set this race apart and make it worth paying attention to. The first is that it has actual consequence, as it sends delegates to the convention. The second is that people, and not cable companies, vote, and they cross party lines to do so. Around 40% of N.H. voters are undeclared, and because of the ease of switching party affiliation in the state, residents can and do vote in whichever primary they deem relevant. Many voters are voting not for the candidate that they want in the Oval Office, but for the candidate whose ideas they think need to be heard.
This means that for the first time the details of a candidate’s platform — and not its relative height — begin to take center stage. Lacking the do-or-die desperation of the general election, votes can here be used to steer debate. Ideas and not electability become the criteria. Add to this the ease with which one can get on the NH primary ballot (a thousand bucks. No petitions. No signatures), and we’re approaching a model for discourse that could help the U.S. break from the two-party lockdown that has homogenized candidates and made radical ideas impossible on either side.
So after an evening of reading up on candidates and reviewing the debates, I shuffled into the fire station, declared my name and felt a twinge of horror and confusion as I requested a Republican ballot. And while I couldn’t mark my X with full confidence in my candidate, I knew at least that I wanted to hear more from him, and had asked myself questions I would not have bothered with otherwise. I dropped my ballot in the box, and then switched my party from Republican back to undeclared. As I left I wasn’t waltzing, but I wasn’t goose-stepping either.
In the early winter of 2010, the Full Stop founding editors pooled our time and unspent creative energy and, out of a shared sense of ambition, enthusiasm, confusion and mild desperation, created a website. We started editing, writing and posting content a year ago today. Amazingly—even though we were editors who needed editors—people wanted to write for us. And then something truly mysterious happened: you all started reading.
Having you as a reader keeps me honest as a writer and an editor. I don’t know who you are, but I bet you want to read reviews and essays that are thoughtfully argued, stylishly executed, and properly punctuated. I bet you want to feel excited and not pacified by good criticism. For you, reader, the literary imagination is about more than just identifying with words on the page. It’s also an ethical imagination. The line between what you read in books and how you want to be in the world is so tenuous that, when you encounter literature that truly moves you, it disappears altogether. You’re a curious amateur, and you think that amateurism is one of life’s great delights. You love story and metaphor. You desire to be transported, because the there-and-then of fiction allows you to inhabit more deeply the here-and-now of daily life, with all of its exigencies and contradictions. You know that the questions worth asking don’t have answers, but the pursuit of answers shapes your life anyway.
I don’t know your age, where you live, or what you do, but I imagine that these things are true of you. And I write, edit and curate Full Stop as though they were.
Would I want to do this job even if we had no readers? Yes. But it would be a little like trying to put on a play with no audience—edifying, invigorating, and strangely hollow. (If there is no one watching you perform like you don’t know anyone is watching you, it negates the thrill of all that unselfconscious craftsmanship, right?)
So thank you, readers; you make this endeavor feel necessary, exciting, and terrifically fun. Here’s to another year.
Qamar Hashim has become, for me, a vortex through which I can re-experience Iraq. His photos, especially the images of throngs twisting through the outdoor markets on al-Mutanabi street, are deftly composed and almost always evoke some just-out-of-your-fingertips sense of loss and fragility. But he does this without taking himself too seriously, without losing his very compassionate and wry sense of humor. Which is all a way of saying that his photos are complex without being heavy-handed.
Also, he’s only eight years old.
Qamar Hashim, a member of the Iraqi Society Photgraphic (ISP), is the youngest person ever to win several local photography awards through his incredibly touching depictions of his native city, using his single camera to take each photograph. Hashim, whose father was a photojournalist, began photographing his country when he was only four years old. He began by taking photographs of American soldiers from the relative safety of his home. But now, more adventurous, artistically ambitious, and with a kind of lame desire to see himself in the Guiness Book of World Records, he has moved on to exploring the more familiar haunts of his hometown. And if none of this is interesting to you so far, maybe you’ll enjoy just how CUTE he is:
And below, Hashim’s favorite photo that he’s taken. I think it’s mine as well:
I used to snowboard, until I sprained my ankle bombing a blue square hill when I was eleven. I didn’t know how to carve, so I just went straight down. It’s a wonder I didn’t hit anyone – it’s also a wonder I fell as close to the bottom as I did. Not exactly the resilient type, I was spooked enough to keep away from the slopes since. This was in Minnesota, land of six-month winters that can be lethally cold, so winter sports are really the only reason to leave the house. Without snowboarding, I had to limit myself to snowball fights and making anatomically correct (if disproportionate) snowmen with some kids I met through my school district’s Gifted and Talented program. Halfway into college, going to the bar became a winter sport.
Recently, I’ve claimed schadenfreude as a winter sport. For those of us bound for hell, it’s a year-round activity, and unlike other winter sports the cold is but the occasion for it and not the cause. Since I’m holed up in my apartment with little more than a space heater and high-speed internet, it’s at least convenient.
The kind of schadenfreude that leads me here isn’t anything heady: it’s little more than saying “these people are idiots.” Which people? The anonymous Facebookers lampooned on Literally Unbelievable. The concept behind this Tumblr is simple: some intrepid, derelict soul has culled together instances on Facebook where people read The Onion’s stories as actual news. It’s not clear to me whether or not it’s just someone with a sick sense of humor and a decent command of Photoshop, or if someone out there is really discovering the sun for the first time. Either way, it was enough to distract me from the winter malaise if only for a minute.
It’s tough to worry that this kind of earnest reading of The Onion will catch on – seriously – so I’ll refrain from making grim prognoses about the future of humankind, irony, etc. I will say, though, that if you enjoyed Literally Unbelieveable you’ll love this.
A few years ago I created a now-defunct Tumblr for the purpose of posting vintage photographs. I mostly liked mid-century color photos of American family life. A snapshot of someone’s sunburned dad leaning against a wooden railing at the edge of the Grand Canyon was a shoe-in as long as the photo brandished the distinctively subdued patina of 1960s Kodachrome.
By design, Tumblr lends itself to digital image collecting, allowing users to easily locate and archive images they find beautiful, compelling, funny and resonant. As a result it hosts many blogs like this, essentially online scrapbooks of other people’s memories and experiences. It’s a versatile platform, and there are definitely other ways to use it — some people, for example, use it as a primarily text-based confessional medium, like Livejournal. But most bloggers use Tumblr to cull images of interest from the far reaches of the internet, communicating their aesthetic sensibilities through photographs taken by others.
This type of photoblogging is a matter of identity formation, as it ultimately constitutes an exercise in taste (as Pierre Bourdieu says, “Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier”). In contrast to the logic of Facebook, which is all about literal self-documentation, the practice looks outward for the digital materials that in social media come to represent the self. Things that would seem tacky or confusing on Facebook — posting lots of pictures of places you’ve never been to, people you don’t know, clothes and goods you don’t own — are par for the course on Tumblr. It follows that Facebook and Tumblr are engaged in two different projects of self-representation, the former emphasizing lived experience and the latter emphasizing cultural awareness.
Once the images start doing this symbolic work, the actual conditions of their production become extraneous. The identity of the man in the Grand Canyon picture, for example, is unimportant to Tumblr’s vintage photo bloggers — if anything, his anonymity contributes to the image’s appeal. The case of vintage photography on Tumblr calls to mind Arjun Appadurai’s “ersatz nostalgia,” where “the viewer need only bring the faculty of nostalgia to an image that will supply the memory of a loss he or she has never suffered.” Digitally reproduced vintage photos are representations of a communal rather than an individual past, and since the past can never be fully recovered they are therefore also articulations of a communal loss. This shared pastness and lostness are the focal points for Tumblr’s vintage photo bloggers. The provenance of the images becomes irrelevant, supplanted by an emphasis on affect.
Tumblr’s logic of representation applies to contemporary photos, too. Images of tattoos, bicycles, subway graffiti, glistening cannabis buds and perfectly swirled ice cream cones covered in sprinkles are ubiquitous. To reblog any of these is, for the average Tumblr user, to establish affinity with an implied group. Many photos on Tumblr are not even credited, because to digital image collectors it simply doesn’t matter where the pictures of crumbling buildings and heart-shaped pastries and brightly colored sneakers are from, or what material reality they document. On Tumblr they become communal property, emblematic of subcultural affiliations, aesthetic orientations, social locations, and ideological dispositions.
Because of Tumblr’s unique insistence on the socially symbolic rather than the literally representative function of images, it can provide uncommon insight into the relationships of certain types of iconography to group identity. For example, following Appadurai we have to wonder what communal loss lends the Grand Canyon picture its allure for Tumblr bloggers. We might choose a concept like family vacation as an entry point, which would then point us toward nostalgic abstractions like nuclear family,childhood, leisure, and mid-century middle-class America. Thanks to Tumblr, we would suddenly find ourselves laying the foundation for an interesting critique.
An idiosynratic lexicon, combined with a rhythmically-altered syntax, charms. These vignettes–abstract, whimsical, serious, fast–do that quote up the wazoo unquote. I particularly like the series of words used in the first sentence of the first story, and then where that story ends up, and where the next story begins. And the names in the second story. They quote throw me for a loop unquote. If you like loops and getting thrown for one, then go ahead. Enjoy these.–David Backer
It’s all so vanilla! You actually shout this. Yet out there, somewhere, you tell yourself, are surprising choco peanuts and warm gobs of fudge to gorge on, velvety-rich layer upon dreamy layer, packed with actual cake pieces, like Ben & Jerry’s Red Velvet Cake. Mindblowing stuff. You search and search, chewing your lip, in actual bodily agony now and again. And striking upon it at last – yes! – a triumphant song swelling in your breast, you realize with plunging heart it’s almost too different, too remote. If it’s not your standard vanilla, suddenly it’s Bavarian Raspberry Crunch. It’s Late Night Snack, with fudge-covered potato-chip clusters and salty caramel swirl. It’s totally whack.–Ryan Nelson
As the tired maxim goes, one has to worry about the quiet ones, but in “The Peeper,” CJ Edwards doesn’t follow the classic PSYCHO formula to a swift and bloody end. He lets us stroll along the course of an ever-more-twisted mind until we reach our fatal destination. This means the terror in “The Peeper” builds steady and lingers long. Best of all, this is not a plunge into a hot bath of homicidal mania – just one bad idea leading to another as our pitiable protagonist is lured by loneliness and lust toward an unsuspecting young woman. Creepy without being prurient, intense without having to roar, substantive without getting slow, “The Peeper” achieves what I rarely see outside of early King and Richard Laymon – a hushed little chit-chat with a sad, sorry man, in all his quiet deadliness.–M. C. Funk
I used to live in Russia, in a city in Siberia that saw very few foreigners. When I met people, often the first thing they asked me was “what do Americans think of us?” And it turned out that a whole myth had arisen out of surmising what Americans think of Russians. In particular, I was many times told that Americans think that in Russia there are bears roaming around city streets, and asked whether I had also thought that, before seeing it wasn’t true. But it had never occurred to me that Moscow might have more urban bears than the average world megacity (has it occurred to you?), and the whole thing seemed an invented misconception of a misconception.
Maybe this weird little story reveals a strange collective anxiety particular to Russia that would take more years of living there to understand. But of course, most people wonder what other people think of them — as individuals, and as members of whatever groups and demographics they find themselves a part of. The other day I was listening to the Slate Political Gabfest podcast, doing a very special broadcast from my very own hometown of Grinnell, Iowa. In the question and answer session, one woman stood up and asked the esteemed gabbers, “There has been a lot of criticism of Iowa voters… criticism of whether we are in touch with the rest of the country. As you travel the country, has the opinion of Iowa changed?” In the rambling style of question and answer sessions, she was asking the D.C. politicos, “What do you think of us?”
In fact, there has been a lot of chatter on “what Iowans are like” in the lead-up to the actually-not-that-important Iowa Caucuses, notably this fairly ignorant piece in The Atlantic by University of Iowa Journalism professor Stephen Bloom, which elicited an outpouring of responses from Iowans themselves. (This one makes me smile, even though it is kind of silly.)
Bloom’s article was particularly stupid, but whenever anyone tries to express what people from a particular place are collectively “like” it is almost inescapably trite and reductive — surprise, surprise. I recently began reading a book called America in an Arab Mirror, a collection of excerpts from travel writing by Arabs in the United States, and while it is sometimes interesting, the book is full of bland surface judgments, and in fact many of the excerpts seem to strive for such generalizations. Some examples: “Americans here are not dissimilar to the Nazis…. The American feels he is the strongest in the world because he owns the arms, the civilization, the technology, and controls the fate of the world,” or, “Love of work, earnestness, and perseverance are some of the signs that show American energy and liveliness,” or, “The American girl is well-acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity.” Reading it makes me feel awkward, constantly curious and also annoyed.
Of course the desire will always be there to know what “they” think of “us,” as though we might learn something we didn’t already know, some new insight into our nature, some better understanding of why they are they and we are we and what that means, but in the end such a revelation is unlikely.