Monday, July 28, 2014

Josh and Rissa's Wedding and Hoopla Part 1: The Ceremony: You know, the “Wedding” part of “Wedding and Hoopla.”

This is what they call a "formal picture."
On Sunday June 22nd, 2014 at the Codman Estate in Lincoln, MA, Riss and I celebrated our relationship with friends and family. Unfortunately not everyone could make it, so I've recreated, as best as possible the course of the day here. We'll get all the sappy stuff out in this first post and all the hoopla in the next.

Our friend Alyson (who earned a Master's from the Divinity School at Harvard, making her, technically a “Master of Divinity,”) was our officiant. Our friends Drew and Shannon were the readers. Not pictured, the frog in the reflecting pool who croaked with an almost unnerving sense of timing and the absolutely perfect breeze.

Alyson's Remarks
Mastering Divinity like He-Man Mastered the Universe
A very, serious occasion
This is how you "Afternoon Beverage."
We live in an interesting time for marriages. We live in a time where the definition and purpose of marriage is hotly debated and rapidly changing – we can turn on C-SPAN and see politicians debating the very essence of marriage, which they are coming to realize is not derived from the gender of its participants, but their commitment to one another.

Ceremonies are changing too. We’ve learned that weddings can be as meaningful in a beautiful grove, surrounded by nature and sanctioned by community, as they can be in a church, sanctioned by God.

But one type of marriage has been left out of this debate. There is still one take on marriage that people don’t know quite what to do with, and I want to stand up for it today – I want to stand up for the overdue marriage.

I first met Josh and Rissa ten years ago, and at that time they had been dating for four years. So, by some people’s standards, that means they should have gotten married two years before I met them, a decade ago. That is a long time. That is enough time for the question to shift from “Why aren’t you getting married?” to, “What’s the point, at this point?”

But what a beautiful thing to stand here today and celebrate a history of fourteen years of finely aged love and commitment. My favorite book, Middlemarch, is full of ill-fated marriages. But there is one moment where Dr. Lydgate, stuck in a marriage with a vain and immature woman he chose too quickly, realizes what marriage could be. Eliot writes, “He was beginning now to imagine how two creatures who loved each other, and had a stock of thoughts in common, might laugh over their shabby furniture, and their calculations about how far they could afford butter and eggs.”

That sounds like Josh and Rissa to me.

Of course, the danger of marrying late is that the blood may have cooled – is there any passion left? But here again, I would argue that an early marriage poses a greater danger. Margaret Fuller wrote about a newlywed couple she knew whose joy in coupledom seems to have deflated at the onset of matrimony. She wondered: “Is it that whatever seems complete sinks into the finite?” For many hopeful couples, once the frontier of marriage is reached, all new horizons seem to fade.

Ambiance. There was also ambiance.
This will not happen to Josh and Rissa. They have never let life bore them, and they are not getting married because they are bored. One thing I admire about Josh and Rissa is that they have incredible integrity about following their ludicrous dreams. They both stubbornly pursue the lifestyles they want to live – and these are not easy lifestyles. These are lifestyles that require patience, persistence, and a tolerance for shabby furniture. These traits are admirable in an individual, but even more so in a couple who each support one another in these pursuits. I have no fear that a ring on their fingers will sink their lives into the “finite” – the common stock of thoughts they share will continue to make their living room one of the most interesting salons in Somerville.

And this is why I want to stick up for the overdue marriage. It is because of the steadiness and wisdom they have built over fourteen years, that life can continue to be a beautiful risk.

Today Josh and Rissa can say simultaneously “We made it,” and “we have so much longer to enjoy it.” It is an occasion worthy of our most sacred ceremony.

Drew's 873rd wedding reading.

from Walt Whitman's “Song of the Open Road”

I do not offer the old smooth prizes,
But offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is called riches,
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve.
However sweet the laid-up stores,
However convenient the dwellings,
You shall not remain there.
However sheltered the port,
And however calm the waters,
You shall not anchor there.
However welcome the hospitality that welcomes you
You are permitted to receive it but a little while
Afoot and lighthearted, take to the open road,
Healthy, free, the world before you,
The long brown path before you,
leading wherever you choose.
Say only to one another:
Camerado, I give you my hand!
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself before preaching or law:
Will you give me yourself?
Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

Jeannette Freakin' Winterson. (Well, Shannon reading Winterson.)
from Art and Lies by Jeanette Winterson
"What marries me to you? Is it a piece of paper? Then I am not married to you. Is it Church approval? Then I am not married to you. Is it the fact of a roof, the fact of a bed, the fact of two keys in one lock? Then I am not married to you. Is it the Eye of the Law? Then I am not married to you.

If it is the daily pleasure in your face. If it is the quickening of my spirits at your face, if it is your face I seek when I seek no other, if it is the love of you that is consent, if it is consent to be of the same mind, then let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.

And love? The brazier where I burn. Extravagant, profuse, excessive, beyond bounds. Out of our risk comes our safety, not the small sad life that will cling to anything because it has nothing. You are not a raft. I am not a sailor. You are not weak. I am more than a strong arm. I want to love you well, not to lose you in children and objects. I want to love you well, but to love you well I shall have to be in love with more than love. I shall have to find in myself the emotional extravagance that fits me to stay in one place."

Alyson: For their vows, Rissa and Josh have adapted a passage from Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov.

Josh: Whenever I start thinking of my love, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love – from my heart, from the tender nucleus of a personal matter – to remote points of the universe.

Adapted Nabokov
Rissa: Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such unimaginable things as the behavior of nebulae, the unknowledgeable beyond the unknown, the distance into distance, the interpenetrations of space and the small act of our smiles together.

Josh: When that slow-motion, silent explosion of love takes place in me, unfolding its melting fringes and overwhelming me with the sense of something much vaster, much more enduring and powerful than the accumulation of matter or energy in any imaginable cosmos, then my mind cannot but pinch itself to see if it is really awake.

Rissa: I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as someone in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of her position by making sure she is dreaming.

Josh:Both dreaming and waking people have long tried to see the time and space of our enduring universe in metaphors of the smallest objects we can hold, like a grain of rice, a dust of stone, or a speck of sand.

Rissa: I have to make a rapid inventory of the universe, just as someone in a dream tries to condone the absurdity of her position by making sure she is dreaming.

It bears repeating: Adapted Nabokov

Josh: After today, instead of looking in old metaphors and tiny things, I vow to see the time and space of our enduring universe in Rissa.

Alyson: Tom Robbins says this about love, in his novel Still Life with Woodpecker.

“Love is the ultimate outlaw. It just won’t adhere to any rules. The most any of us can do is to sign on as its accomplice. Instead of vowing to honor and obey, maybe we should swear to aid and abet. That would mean that security is out of the question. The words “make” and “stay” become inappropriate. My love for you has no strings attached. I love you for free.”

Josh, take this ring from Beverly, and put it on Rissa’s left hand. Do you promise to aid and abet the ultimate outlaw and to love Rissa with no strings attached and for free?

Josh: Yes.

Rissa, take this ring from Beth and put it on Josh’s left hand. Do you promise to aid and abet the ultimate outlaw and to love Josh with no strings attached and for free?

Rissa: Yes.

Alyson: “By the power vested in me by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, I now pronounce Joshua Douglas Cook and Carissa Michelena Leal, married. You may now kiss each other.”

Artisanal Sock Level Classy
The Cavalry.

Monday, July 14, 2014

How to Read Knausgaard

I can forgive you for not liking Ulysses or Lolita or Tristram Shandy or In Search of Lost Time or really any masterpiece of literature of any time, by any author, and in any genre. Masterpieces are, almost by definition, distinctive and when something is distinctive, again, almost by definition, not everyone will enjoy, like, agree with, whatever distinguishes the work from everything else in the world. It is probably too early to tell whether My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard is a masterpiece, (I think it is) but it certainly is distinctive. Which means some readers won't like it and I'm fine with that. (A little less fine with accusation, sometimes overt, sometimes implied, that everyone who says they like it is just saying that because they think it will make them look cool. Just because you didn't like the book, doesn't mean it is unlikable, in the exact same way that just because I think it is a monumental achievement of the written word doesn't mean I think you are deficient if you disagree.)

Often, distinctive books need to be read distinctively as well. Because they tend not to follow the guidelines of whatever genre they reside in and because they also tend to pose new ideas and new challenges, you often need to learn how to read the world's greatest books as you read them. (Insert extremely long, well-researched, point on how the structure of American schooling, though efficient in teaching literacy, is inherently incapable of teaching literature. Thanks.) If you're willing to put in that effort to be uncomfortable, to be baffled, to be confused, to be totally and utterly lost, I believe you end up a better reader (and, yes, to me “better reader” is essentially synonymous with “better person”) with new reading tools you can apply to any books, distinctive or typical. I've read all three of the current volumes of My Struggle in English, so for those of you thinking or participating in “The Great Knausgaard Debate of 2014,” here's how to read My Struggle.

"This is my 'humble' face."
Forget the whole fiction/memoir/autobiography debate.
The autobiographical nature of the work raises major questions about the distinctions we draw between what is “real” and what is “that other thing that isn't real.” Given the unstable nature of memory, all “memoirs” have aspects of “fiction.” (And, of course, some memoirs are complete fiction.) But given the inherent artificiality of a book in general, all books, no matter how well-researched, well-annotated, well-fact-checked, will have aspects of fiction. The very act of compartmentalizing something into a book removes it from reality and, unless you're reading about something that happened to you specifically, asks the reader to use their imagination as much as anything else.

My Struggle pressures this long standing debate about the divide between fiction and non-fiction, but, obsessing over whether this fact is “true” in the “The New York Times will say it is true” way or “true” in the “it is an expression of human experience,” way will only hobble your reading experience. It's a vital part of the overall literary effect of the book, but in the reading moment, it's a distraction. Since Knausgaard calls it a novel and the bookstore shelves it in the fiction section, while I'm reading I think of it as fiction. Though I'm not sure it responds to the close reading I like to do in the same way most other great works of literature do, I've found it a lot more satisfying to think of Karl Ove as a fictional character in the traditional sense, than as a fiction character created through the processes of memory in the contemporary memoir sense.

Let your memories roam.
My Struggle is written in what I think of as meditative prose. Though it has a fair amount of detail and a fair number of syntactically complex sentences, in general the prose is lucid, direct, and accessible. It manages to be both simple and complex. It engages my brain, without straining it. Which means, I begin to remember events from my own life. Which is part of Knausgaard's point. By writing his own life in novelistic detail and technique, Knausgaard provides us a means to approach our own lives with novelistic detail and technique. (Which places it firmly in the tradition of high modernism, but the persistence of high modernism in contemporary literature is an idea for another piece.) So if you find yourself drifting off, drift off. My Struggle will be there for you when you get back. And honestly, there's enough of it that you don't need to internalize every single word, so don't worry if you end up drifting and reading. That said...

Be ready for moments of brilliance buried in the endless pages of minutia.
Despite the constant comparisons, My Struggle shares very little with In Search of Lost Time. But, along with being really long and really autobiographical, the books share one other fact; sudden moments of striking brilliance. Some observation about art or literature. Some perfect encapsulation of a life experience. Some phrase like a display of fireworks that just appears above your brain. In Proust and Knausgaard, these moments are both rewards and propellants; payoffs for all the work you've done through some long and dense passage and promises that the next long and dense passage will have a similar reward.

But, if you've reached that meditative state described above, it can be easy to miss these, sometimes very brief moments. So you have to read in two minds; one that lets the drifting happen and the other keeping real track of things. For me, it's a lot like reading and walking. You focus on the book as you would, while keeping just enough of your thoughts external to make sure you don't bump into people or walk into the street. (Yes, there is a “The Dark Art of Walking and Reading” post kicking around in my head.)

This is exactly my point about the power of learning how to read a specific book. The dual reading consciousness thing isn't one you use in the course of normal reading, but once you've developed it through My Struggle, it is yours forever to apply (or not) as you see fit.

My Struggle is a thought experiment, but then again so is every book.
Ultimately, My Struggle is a thought experiment, one that requires a massive multi-volume work to execute. Knausggard has asked a question: What happens if I write my life out in novelistic detail? and My Struggle is the result of his exploration of that question. Experiments, by definition, can fail. In fact, the power of experiments, in science and art, literature, music, whatever, comes from the value of their failure. If My Struggle is a “failed” book, as many people, so far, believe it is, we still learn about literature, life, and memory, through Knausgaard's effort. We still gain something through whatever effort we put into reading, and the world of literature is still richer for its presence.

But all works of literature are, at their fundamental core, thought experiments, it's just the nature of My Struggle makes its experimentness more overt. All books present a thesis. All literature is the written expression of one human being wondering if something will work. All that distinguishes “experimental” literature from other literature is the overtness of its experimentation. In a way, “experimental” literature is more honest, because it is upfront about the possibility of failure. Austen experimented. Dickens experimented. What we consider “traditional” or “mainstream” now, was once the radical experimentation of an outlier, executing a thought experiment to see what would communicate. In that sense, those who argue against experiments in literature, who assume that atypical forms or styles are just compensation for a lack of storytelling skills, or that any attempts to communicate beyond the most used forms of communication are proof of an insufferably arrogant writer, argue against the very idea of literature. Why are we writing books if we are not trying to continually remake the world into something new?

My Struggle and Literary Stardom
I have no idea why My Struggle has surged to literary stardom. I also have no idea why a trilogy of Twilight fan-fiction (not knocking Twilight fan-fiction) are some of the most bestselling books of ALL TIME. I have no idea why the persistence forces of radical humanism in literature all coalesced into modernism and I have no idea why so little of the energy of that modernism moment persisted into mainstream literature, even as so much of its content did. I have no idea why Ron Currie Jr. , isn't a literary superstar (or Jesse Ball or Kathryn Davis or...). Culture is chaos with moments that look like order and extracting those moments from the chaos in any kind of accurate or meaningful way is impossible. But we can try. We can propose solutions (a huge population of mostly women realized they were allowed to enjoy pornography) and even if those proposes solutions have limits (but why would that trilogy create the permission?) we grow that one step towards an understanding of our world.

The passage of time may reveal that My Struggle is everything its detractors accuse it of being. It might be the height of self-indulgence. It might be boring without redemption. It might, ultimately, say nothing about the human condition. It might be a complete and utter failure. But something happened in the course of that failure. We've discussed, we've debated, we've argued, we've critiqued, and we've learned, either in concert or in opposition to My Struggle.

Knausgaard tried, and even if he failed, his attempt belongs to the long process of human progress.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

One Thing Hachette Can Do

There isn't much Hachette can do in their protracted negotiations with Amazon. Simply put, Amazon doesn't need Hachette. Whatever loss in profits Amazon sees from lost Hachette sales is a tiny fraction of their overall corporation. For that matter, even if losing Hachette sales did meaningfully affect its profit margins, Amazon has been comfortable with unprofitably for its entire existence, especially when considering potential growth, so I don't see them miraculously changing that pattern. Really it's like negotiating with someone holding a shotgun who also believes he's bullet proof.

Customer retention? A smile and a blow gun, of course.
If I had to guess, Hachette is holding out until whichever publisher is next in the staggered negotiation begins their own contract dispute. Obviously, Amazon is going to offer them the same terms being offered to Hachette and obviously that publisher will reject them. (Unless Amazon plays some very long divide and conquer technique, giving every other publisher but Hachette acceptable terms, then slowly driving Hachette and Hachette alone into some from of non-existence, but that would be some three-level chess stuff and potentially illegal.) The hope would then be a slow moving, 100% collusion-free compromising of more and more of Amazon's book sales with the result that either, Amazon offers better terms or book buyers begin switching to other retailers in significant numbers.

But I think, in the interim, there is at least one action Hachette can take that might give them something in their next round of negotiations, that also inherently strengthens the diversity of the book economy. Remove DRM from their ebooks.

One of the less talked about reasons from Amazon's dominance of the ebook market is the fact that they produced the first satisfactory, widely available, publicized ereader. You could argue that Amazon actually created the contemporary ebook market. Much of their current dominance has less to do with selling ebooks at a loss as it does just maintaining the head start they got with the first Kindle. Maintaining that head start is partially about prices, but it's also about DRM.

I'm illegally downloading the main ideas into my brain.
DRM (Digital Rights Management) is what prevents people from (legally) changing the format of the ebooks they have bought. (And copying them as well, but if you want to pirate a book, DRM is not going to stop you.) One reason why Amazon does not use the .EPUB ebook file, which has become the industry standard, is to lock customers into their content eco-system. Owning a Kindle essentially forces you to shop with Amazon. But those locks only work when customers are unable to convert their ebooks from one file to another. For example, if a Kindle owner, for whatever reason, wanted to switch to a different e-reader it would be almost impossible for them to (legally) move the library of ebooks they purchased to the new device. Likewise, it would also be (legally) impossible for a Kindle owner to take advantage of a sale Kobo might be running.

But once the publisher removes DRM it gets much, much easier for customers to leave Amazon. There might be lots of Kindle owners frustrated or disgusted with any one of Amazon's transgressions, but unless they are so frustrated that they are willing to give up their existing Kindle library, there really isn't a way for them to express their disgust. (As a reader, I don't think I could ever ask someone to give up their library.) Nor is there a way for them to, for whatever reason, buy an ebook elsewhere (like their local independent bookstore) and read it on their Kindle. In short, innovation gave Amazon a head start and predator pricing gave them dominance, but DRM sustains them.

Removing DRM does two things for Hachette. First, it makes it easier for customers to shop elsewhere. Second, given that DRM is important to Amazon it gives Hachette something (anything) to bargain with. I doubt there will be enough market movement for this to have a major impact on negotiations but something is better than nothing and right now, Hachette has nothing.

Life is an empty publicity stunt.
Which leads us, as nearly everything around this conflict will ultimately do, back to the DOJ's successful suit against publishers. DRM removal will really only have a major impact on the ebooks market if ALL publishers do it. A few customers might go through the effort of finding a Hachette book from Porter Square Books that can be read on their Kindle, but most customers want the books they want. Unless I can tell them ALL the books they buy from the store can be read on the Kindle (with a little help from Calibre) there won't be nearly enough cross-platform purchasing to make an impact. But I don't think any publishers have the stomach to risk another round of allegation, even though it doesn't take a backroom meeting somewhere in Manhattan to realize the value of ditching DRM. Even if they just made the change whenever their negotiations started, when seen from a certain perspective any action taken in common (except further consolidation, of course) will be seen as “co-ordination” or “collusion.” You know, like how early humans colluded over the spread of fire and agriculture. One of the many, many ironies of the DOJ case is that so many of traditional publishing's detractors vaguely argue for it's need to “evolve,” and “move into the future,” but fear of further litigation has essentially removed natural selection from traditional publishing; a good idea (still sticking with removing DRM) will have a much harder time driving innovation and evolution of publishing because the DOJ determined that “adopting best practices” is collusion.

At the very least, removing DRM would be a meaningful gesture (as opposed to an empty publicity stunt) to readers. It will enable debate about how we administer the economy of ebooks and it will highlight how Amazon and others seek to capture customers rather than convince them. And, it's doing something, anything, to demonstrate activity. Hachette right now, needs to be patient, but it will be a lot easier with at least one thing to do.