Writing And The Hundred Book Summer

Shortly after I have returned my student’s writing assignments to them, I start setting up appointments with those students who want to talk about their grades. In these consultations, as I go over the importance of returning to the reading assignments, preparing an early draft, meeting the writing tutor, revising often, having a friend read drafts, and so on, I sometimes also tell them a little story about how reading more can make you into a better writer.

A couple of years ago, my Brooklyn College colleague Robert Viscusi told me how he had transformed himself from an ‘average’ student into a ‘good’ one, one with some talent for writing. After his freshman year of college, he found himself in the privileged position of having a great deal of time on his hands that summer. I do not remember if summer employment was disdained, not felt necessary or merely part-time, but be that as it may, he had time to read.

And so he read that summer. Prodigiously. At the rate of a book a day. He read novels, short stories, history, the lot. He read and read, clocking in at, I think, a hundred books. Prior to that summer, he had been a B-student. After that summer, he never got less than an A. And he found too, a facility and a talent for writing that had not made itself manifest before.

I tell my students that I don’t expect them to read a book a day. Given the constraints on their time and energy, and their often radically different stations in life, this would be unrealistic. But I do ask them to pay attention to the transformation in a student’s scholarly abilities by this devotion to reading. And more to the point, to the change in writing abilities.

Those who read more write better. They encounter writing in its many different forms; they develop and acquire a taste; they are exposed to examples, good and bad, of the art and craft of writing; they internalize, subconsciously, implicitly and explicitly, crucial elements of style; they see writers explain, persuade, argue, tell stories, complain, mock, ridicule; they notice verbal trickery and subtlety; they witness the deployment of rhetoric; and most ambitiously, they might imagine they would like to get a piece of the action and do it better than those whom they read. Or at least emulate them.

I find grading papers extraordinarily hard and still struggle with providing adequate feedback to my students on their papers. (My comments on papers are brief and synoptic; I do not micro-markup.) It is easier for me to remind students of methodology–‘in most instances you can delete the first paragraph you wrote in your first draft; most likely, it’s just throat clearing’–than it is to tell them what is wrong with a particular piece of writing.

But I can always fall back on a reliable instruction: if you want to write better, start reading more. Way more than you do now. That’s good advice for me too.



Walter Kaiser on Online Instability vs. Printed Stability

In reviewing the fifteen-volume cataloging of the massive Robert Lehman Collection (‘An Astonishing Record of a Vast Collection‘, New York Review of Books, 7 March 2013), Walter Kaiser writes:

Like the collection itself, its impressive catalog may well be the last of its kind–and there aren’t, as I’ve said, very many of its kind to begin with. In this era of revolutionary technological innovation, online catalogs are bound more and more to replace such endeavors, and one can only wonder about the future of the printed catalog. The great advantage of an online catalog is that attributions, conservation work, exhibitions and bibliography can all be updated in perpetuity.

However, perpetual aggiornamento brings with it losses as well. At least for someone of my generation, the handsome volumes of the Lehman Collection have an enduring stability and nobility that any online catalog, essentially mutable and transient, lacks. What is more, these volumes tell you important things about the time in which they were written, the point of view of the author, and the way in which art was perceived at a certain moment in history; an online catalog may or may not give you that information and authorial voices, which are one of the aspects of the Lehman catalog that make it so special, may well be lost.

These are a perceptive set of remarks. They capture a curious feature of the online: that while it promises greater endurance–as evinced in the slogan ‘digitize it if you want it to persist!’ and in the very real fear that our online identities are well-nigh impossible to erase–its content is also more susceptible to constant alteration and emendation, and thus to easily provide a snapshot, a moment frozen in time. (Software version control systems are, if nothing else, an attempt to maintain a running image of the code changes over time for purposes of quality control and debugging as are the tracking features of word processors.) As I noted in my post here on Robert Viscusi’s epic poem Ellis Island, this feature of the digital is what makes possible that poem’s endlessly generative aspects; it would be rather intractable to attempt to replicate that same feature in a traditional, paper version of the poem. (Or if not intractable, then perhaps exceedingly clumsy.)

There is, in the journalistic context, another not-benign aspect of this digital transience: the less-than-entirely scrupulous journalist or blogger may edit his articles online–without making note of his changes–to cover up mistakes and misstatements. These can be recovered from cached versions of the page in question but these might not always be available. In a personally amusing instance of this, a blogger who had once found my analysis perspicuous enough to cite in a post of his own, but found a later article infuriating and said so in a subsequent post, went back to his first post and edited it to scrub me from it. So determined was he to ensure that no trace of his archaic appreciation ever existed.

Sometimes the instability of the digital can function not like a feature, but like a bug.

Viscusi and Queneau: The Combinatorics of Poetry

Reviewing Daniel Levin Becker‘s Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature (‘Anticipatory Plagiarism‘, London Review of Books, 6 December 2012) allows Paul Grimstad to take a tour through the wild and wacky world of experimental literature by way of some of the usual suspects. Most notably, Georges Perec and Oulipo (‘Ouvroir de littérature potentielle’; ‘workshop of potential literature’) The latter, ‘the group devoted…to inventing, analysing and sometimes applying constraints for the making of literature’ was founded by François Le Lionnais and Raymond Queneau; Becker is the newest member of their now-fifty three year old collective.

It  is Queneau’s work that most interests me today. Grimstad points out that:

Queneau’s Cent mille milliards de poèmes is a set of ten sonnets, such that latent in the design are 10^14–or one hundred thousand billion–potential poems. Queneau said that if read a sonnet every minute in eight-hour shifts every working day it would take a million centuries to finish the book.

Queneau’s work finds resonance in Robert Viscusi‘s epic poem, Ellis Island, which is ‘about’ immigration, America, places in the mind and in the heart. (I have blogged about Viscusi’s work on this blog before, especially his ‘novel’ Astoria.) It exists in two forms: a stable text and a dynamic, generated, evanescent one. The former is divided into fifty-two books each containing twelve sonnets of fourteen lines each. That makes for a total of six hundred and twenty-four sonnets; from this ‘raw material’ new sonnets are generated by picking a book, a sonnet, and a line fourteen times. The result is a new sonnet, which ‘goes away’ once a new sonnet is generated. The number of possible combinations, 624^14 sonnets, is staggeringly large. (Viscusi acknowledges his explicit debt to Queneau in his introduction to the book’s two forms.)

The following is a random sonnet I generated for this post. The numerals in the left column indicate book, sonnet, and line numbers that identify the source of each line in the stable text.

38 4 1 you see soon a great narrative paisley spermatomorph on the face of the silk tie
7 3 2 lights came up in the theater
46 7 12 we need to make a great nation we said to one another
12 8 6 when the sea is death he says polish your shoes
17 6 8 play with their musical gifts when you can and expect a visitor
36 5 9 the audience enjoys it because wife and husband both end happily
21 2 3 on the way home it fell on the sidewalk and broke leaving a stain
22 5 1 each of these persons has another side as you have
19 1 6 each such routine constitutes a remaining wall of your prison
49 6 10 thus taught beato roberto and this i have in my own life repeated in brooklyn
29 7 11 i was lying on the ground trying to remember times i used to be happy among beans
45 9 7 flies to new york returns five days later finds his daughter speaking italian
6 1 3 each one endowed with an epic willpower
50 7 1 one of the main things about freedom is it’s hard to enjoy without money

The potential for serendipitous discovery of a ‘new’ poem is immense’ more to the point, for a moment, we become poets ourselves.

Note: By a lovely coincidence, George Perec wrote a novel called Ellis Island.

No Matter Where You Go, There’s Home: Robert Viscusi’s Astoria

This morning, while out for a errand-laden walk–visiting the pediatrician’s office, shopping, and getting an influenza vaccine shot–in this bizarrely gorgeous East Coast January weather, I ran into my friend and Brooklyn College colleague, the poet Robert Viscusi, with whom I work at the Wolfe Institute for the Humanities. I admire Bob for his erudition, wit, and writing, have learned a great deal from him over the years, and consider my meeting-time jousts with him among my most enjoyable and intellectually rewarding campus experiences ever, so it is to his work that I devote this brief note.

I own two of Viscusi’s books: the difficult, yet rewarding, quasi-autobiographical novel Astoria, which introduced me to, among other things, the Stendhal Syndrome, and provided an acute, poetic glimpse of the Italian-American experience that seemed to speak directly to me, also an immigrant to the US; and the short collection of poems titled A New Geography of Time.  The inscriptions on the latter reads, ‘To Samir Chopra, From the land of the sphinxes, Bob Viscusi, 10/17/12, Brooklyn.’ But it is to the former that I am paying attention today.

When I began reading Astoria, I found immediate resonances: it is a tale of loss and discovery, of parental connections and sunderings, of new beginnings, and pasts left behind. It is about mothers and sons, and families, transplanted. It is not an easy book; when I first reported this to Bob, his response was to suggest reading it aloud. I complied; it worked. When a poet turns his hand to a novel you must not follow him all the way; continue reading him as you did before. For as Viscusi describes Astoria in the prologue:

It’s sort of a novel in the form of a poem in the form of three essays about the meaning of history.

I mentioned the Stendhal Syndrome above. What role does it play in Astoria? Quite simply this: the narrator of the story suffers from it. He was first afflicted at the tomb of Napoleon in Paris, two years after the death of his mother. He discovers she is, to him, Napoleon. As he moves through this world, he finds that his journeys, no matter how far-flung, never take him beyond Astoria, her home, a Napoleonic empire. He carries her, the strongest and most distinctive imprint on his persona, a ghost in the corpora, with him, wherever he goes. But she is Astoria, so he takes Astoria everywhere. Some of us want to go home but are told we can never do so; yet others, it seems can only go home again and again.  As Buckaroo Banzai might have said, ‘No matter where you go, there it is.’

Home, of course, is our most familiar resting place, where we seek to return, for comfort and succor in times of adversity, when confronted with the world’s strangeness. It sticks to us like a skin. The immigrant’s journey’s are often termed a sloughing off of this cover, but as Viscusi notes, it persists, screening, vetting and transforming, quite uniquely, everything that seeks entrance into our bodies and minds. Astoria  shows us among (many!) other things, how we take our homes and histories with us, wherever we go.

Grazie Professore!

Starting to Understand the Reactionary Mind

My Brooklyn College colleague Corey Robin‘s new book, The Reactionary Mind, has, thanks to its provocative thesis (and its brilliant prose, a rare quality in an academic book), sparked a great deal of discussion in academic and non-academic circles alike. Given the relevance of the book to modern American political life, and its provision of an intellectual history of conservatism, the Wolfe Institute at Brooklyn College–where I serve as faculty associate–has decided to make the book the subject of this semester’s faculty study group. We will meet once a month to discuss the book’s arguments and analysis; I will lead the discussion. (The Wolfe Institute conducts such faculty study groups every semester; last semester I discussed Alexander NehamasNietzsche: Life as Literature; Nietzsche, incidentally, is classified as a conservative by Robin.)

Unfortunately, this rather humdrum business of a bunch of academics getting together to read a book and discuss it, seems to have been rather bizarrely misunderstood–by some–as an ideological exercise of sorts. Professor Mitchell Langbert of the National Association of Scholars described, in a blog post, the study group’s planned activity as a “discussion…at taxpayer expense,” possibly an exercise in “taxpayer-funded ideology,” and wonders whether I will “permit disagreement” and whether “the democratic ideologies of Stalin and Mao will be used to illustrate Robin’s and Chopra’ commitment to freedom and democracy.” Professor Langbert also emailed Professor Robert Viscusi of the Wolfe Institute and myself (making sure to copy Brooklyn College administrators, though he got the email addresses wrong), and said, among other things:

I am offended at and concerned about the announcement that you released yesterday concerning a talk about conservatives at the Wolfe Institute. The talk is ideological, and your announcement is offensive to the few, suppressed Brooklyn College conservatives not already eliminated from their jobs via ideologically motivated personnel decisions. Calling American conservatism a reaction against democratic challenges and claiming that conservatives defend power and privilege against freedom movements are red herrings. The fishy scent is evident in your lumping together Ayn Rand, John C. Calhoun, and Edmund Burke. Have you sponsored speakers who can explain why doing so is ill informed?

Professors Chopra and Robin are entitled to their political views, but do you intend to offer balance? If the Wolfe Center sponsors ideological attacks on conservatism, do you also offer balance with a speaker or two who know something about conservatism?

I remain puzzled as to how a “faculty study group” could be confused with a “talk” and how the activities of a study group devoted to a discussion of a book’s arguments could be construed as the promulgation of an ideology. The invitation to the study group was sent to all Brooklyn College faculty members, presumably a diverse group that includes political orientations of all stripes. As Professor Robert Viscusi put it, “As many points of view will be represented as the participants choose to espouse.” My task is to lead the discussion, not to censor disagreement.

The problem might be, of course, that merely reading and discussing the book is offensive to some. To that sensibility I have nothing to say.

Update (February 10th): In my original post, I forgot to mention that Professor Langbert appeared to have copied Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the CUNY Board of Trustees member who, last year, had played a significant role in the university’s disastrous decision to deny Tony Kushner a honorary degree. (The decision was subsequently reversed.) Mr. Wiesenfeld joined the fray by writing:

This is the curse of academia: no honest debate. Just shut your opponents down. Ahhh…but if political islamists come along, the liberalls[sic] cower. Nothing like implied or real threats of violence to take campus control. Checkpoints and BDS conferences anyone?

My reactions to this message are the same as above. I have added a link to “BDS conferences” so that readers can understand the reference.

Update (February 18th): Professor Langbert has responded to the post above in another blog post (at the National Association Scholars blog).