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A Change of Scenery

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A little while ago, I drove home to spend a few days with my family. I had wanted to read Edward Tufte’s books on graphic design, and since my dad conveniently owned the first three he loaned them to me. I’ve since finished moving into a new apartment, and finished those books.

The Visual Display of Quantitative Information is, despite the title, absolutely delightful. Every aspect of the production of the book was carefully undertaken, and the result is a volume that is physically beautiful. More important, though, is that it is written with clarity, economy, and wit. Tufte advances an idea. He presents evidence. The reader is convinced. The structure of the book is transparent, leaving the reader with a clear idea of exactly what is discussed, and how it fits into the larger argument. The language is crisp and engaging, and when he presents examples of bad graphic design, Tufte scolds without being strident. The tone of the book is entirely Horatian.

Tufte’s subsequent two books are exercises in repetition. The third book, written over a decade after Visual Display, offers in the introduction an explanation of the function of the three books in relation to one another. The ill-fit argument is that the first book is about pictures of numbers, the second book about pictures of nouns, and the third book about pictures of verbs. This is rather surprising; to take one example the chart on page 42 of the first book directly prefigures much of the third book. In fact it is very difficult to discover anything substantive in the second or third books that was not initially discussed, with greater clarity and brevity, in the first book. Tufte does continue to present beautiful examples of graphic design, and these examples continue to be printed in beautifully crafted books. Unfortunately, as the weight of the paper increases, he uses more and more words to say less. The second and third books become rambling and unfocused; bad examples are caustically attacked; no clear and coherent argument emerges. The reader is left wondering what the purpose of books two and three really is, as they seem little more than example books, albeit very beautiful ones.

This is probably a problem with me more than with Tufte. Phillip Pullman wrote a trilogy of fantasy novels, His Dark Materials (now being turned in to a movie trilogy), which I had a similar experience with. The first book was wildly creative, original, and entertaining, and I eagerly dove in to the remaining two only to see the story quickly degrade into a saccharine morality tale. But that tale was undoubtedly present from the very beginning, if I had just read a little more carefully. The issue was probably that I had a different idea of the story than the author, and wasn’t willing to go along with anything else. So it probably went with Tufte. The first book was so impressive and gave me such a clear personal idea of what the follow-ups should be that I couldn’t (and can’t) judge them with an objective eye.

Anyhow. It still pisses me off.

So my new apartment is awesome. You should come party.

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Written by Daniel Grady

September 10, 2007 at 02:42

Posted in Books, Rants

Fantasy

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A friend of mine was recently reading the first book in the Wheel of Time fantasy series by Robert Jordan. I am snobbish about many things, and the subject of books is one of them, so of course I had to give her a hard time about reading what was, in my mind, a “pulp” fantasy series. Being the good-natured person that she is, she smirked at me and asked for some suggestions for more worthwhile reading. Naturally, I couldn’t come up with anything off the top of my head, and ended up looking like the bumbling fool I am. Since then, however, I’ve had some time to collect my thoughts, and put together a list of books I enjoyed.

Now, ya’ll have got to take everything here with a grain of salt. This is all just my opinion. Obviously, this is true of everything I write on this site, but people can get a little more excited than usual if someone starts criticizing their favorite author (I know I do). If you see something here with which you take strong issue, remember: I’m not trying to present it as some kind of absolute truth. It’s just what I think. With that said, let me lay out for you my theory of books.

I’ve got this idea that good books and good writers fall into two broad categories. The first category is for books that are awesome. They have great stories, great language, great ideas, and are entertaining. They are just all-around solid books, books that I was happy to have read and would read again. They do not make it into the second category, though. There are a great many authors working today who fit in this category. In the sci-fi/fantasy genres, I place authors like Neil Gaiman (the Sandman series, American Gods, Coraline), Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell) and Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, The Diamond Age) in this category.

The second category is for writing that has all of the aforementioned qualities and more. These are works that have a focus and perfection of construction, that are complete, moving, and beautiful; they stand above other writing to achieve true and lasting worth, and are art. Shakespeare goes here. So do the Lord of the Rings and Dune.

I do not intend with the above descriptions to belittle those works which I place in the first category. There is a place for them, and they fill a vital role. The difference between the two is that books from the first category are transitory; there are always excellent writers working to produce excellent fiction, and as time goes on, the excellent writing of today will surrender to the excellent writing of tomorrow. Those books that stand above, however, are something unique. They will not be supplanted.

What follows is a spotty list of books that generally fall into the fantasy (/sci-fi) genre which I believe are worthwhile. Although I consider these to be a bit more interesting than Robert Jordan, the ultimate test of any art is whether or not you enjoy it. Here, then, are books I enjoyed. The first entries are those books which I believe will stand; the rest are merely outstanding.

  • Lord of the Rings and Dune certainly top the list. Their status as classics is well earned, and I won’t spend too long talking about why they’re so amazing. Suffice it to say that these books are considered the granddaddies of fantasy and science fiction for good reason.
  • The Book of the New Sun, by Gene Wolfe, is a tetrology that is justifiably on par with the Lord of the Rings. That is a popular statement to make about a work of fantasy, and everyone has their own opinion of a book’s merit; however, this is the only work I have ever read to which I would unhesitatingly offer that praise. It has not had, and will not have, the kind of societal impact that Tolkien did, but it is nonetheless a classic. Wolfe, like Tolkien, also has a keen interest in the stories and myths of antiquity, and as in the Lord of the Rings, Wolfe puts this knowledge to good use in his writing, fleshing out a world that has been flung far into the future but is still based unmistakably on the past. Although Wolfe took inspiration from many sources when he wrote these, what he created is something that is completely unique. I cannot emphasize strongly enough how wonderful these books are; everyone should read them. Wolfe has continued to write, and, while all his writing is very good, very interesting, and very literarily informed, I have not been as impressed by any of his later work as I was by the Book of the New Sun.
  • The Princess Bride, by William Goldman, is probably better known for the movie adaptation (which Goldman also wrote the screenplay for). Both the book and the movie are so whimsically charming, clever, and fun that you would be doing yourself a tremendous disservice if you didn’t check them out. A classic fairy tale, updated for our modern lifestyle.
  • Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin, is a book I just recently finished, and it’s been fantastic. Helprin has a list of credentials a mile long, has published fiction, non fiction, and written for many publications, but this is apparently the only fantasy novel he’s ever produced. Although the plot does not hang together well enough for this to be everything it could have been, his language is so inventive and rich that you keep reading just to see what he can come up with next. A great deal of fun to read. It’s about New York City.
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, is also quite a lot of fun to read. It stands out for Clarke’s rich reimagination of English history and amusing characters. It is dark and brooding, but the very seriousness with which the story is treated lends a (deliberately) comic undercurrent to many parts. For its use of the flowery language of Jane Austen, this book is frequently likened to an Austen work with a fantasy twist, but I find that comparison less than apt. For one thing, Strange & Norrell isn’t boring as hell. For another, Clarke’s use of that characteristic diction becomes less prevalent as the book nears the end and the action picks up; it struck me as being more of a comedic device than anything else. Either way, the book is very engaging and highly recommended.
  • The Gormenghast series, by Mervyn Peake, is a very surreal set of books. I have only read the first one (Titus Groan), and it was very good. It centers around the events at Gormenghast castle, which is a sprawling, decaying monstrosity that is peopled by a number of very odd characters. It’s kind of hard to say anything definitive about the book; although I enjoyed reading it, Titus Groan is not exactly entertaining. Like the castle itself, the book feels very large and very musty. Still, very interesting and worth the time.
  • Coraline, by Neil Gaiman, is a children’s story, but damn if it isn’t creepy. Short, well-constructed, and disturbing as only English children’s stories can be. Also, though they’re not traditional fiction, Gaiman was the writer for the long-running Sandman series of graphic novels. Although I was not a fan of most of the art, the writing was quite good.
  • Snow Crash and the Diamond Age are the two books by Neal Stephenson that I’ve read, and they were great. As I understand it, basically everything he writes is interesting and fun. More sci-fi than fantasy, but who cares, right?
  • The Golden Compass, by Phillip Pullman, is the first volume in a trilogy he wrote called His Dark Materials. The series is aimed towards a young adult audience, but I read the Golden Compass just a few years ago and thought it was excellent. What impressed me about it was the extremely rich world Pullman created without leaning at all on the crutch of traditional fantasy archetypes, as well as his willingness to expect the reader to discover the conventions of his world without being held by the hand. The second two books were not, in my humble opinion, worthy followups; they lost much of that creativity and devolved into what I saw as little more than morality stories with a predictably sappy happy ending. Judging from popular reaction, however, I believe I’m alone in that assessment. Also, it looks as though they’re going to be making some movies based on this trilogy (expected January 2007), which could have gone either way if they hadn’t gotten Tom Stoppard on board as a writer.
  • The Discworld series by Terry Pratchett and the Hitchhiker’s Guide trilogy by Douglas Adams. These two venerable series stand as counterparts in my mind; both are primarily comedic, the former with a fantasy flavor and the latter science fiction. Pratchett’s series is much longer running; I think there are something like 30 books now, and although I feel that the overall quality is not quite as high as when he first started, they are still quite entertaining. The earlier ones are definitely better, though. As far as Adams goes, the first two books of the Hitchhiker’s Trilogy are outstanding, but they worsen severely after that point. These books are on the list because everyone talks about them, they’re a ton of fun to read, and it will take you all of a day or two to get through one.

That’s it. Hope you found at least one book that piqued your interest.

Written by Daniel Grady

December 1, 2005 at 11:57

Posted in Books

Comics

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You may have noticed in the past few years that comics are getting quite a bit more press than they historically have- there have been any number of articles on the internet commenting on their wider-spread acceptance as ‘serious’ art, how the form has finally matured, and so on and so forth; the number of movies based on comics that have been made in the past five years also bears testament to this phenomena. Scott McCloud is probably the most well-known comic advocate, and has written extensively on the theory of comics, but it seems like these days everyone from literary journalists to college students is writing about the comic as a medium.

I won’t make any claims about being a comic aficionado; I know next to nothing about their history, or the history of their acceptance in the mainstream. However, the result of seeing several writeups about comics and some comic-inspired movies was that I broke down and actually read a few of them. Now, right up front let’s be clear on the fact that, when people talk about the comic as an art form, they’re not usually thinking about X-Men or Batman. Not to say that those kinds of comics are bad; they are, in fact, excellent in the same way Harry Potter is excellent- entertaining, fun reads. As well-executed as they are, however, you probably wouldn’t point to them as the vanguard of the ‘new seriousness.’ Comics (believe it or not) are just as capable as book or film of treating all manner of issues from the timeless coming-of-age story to discovering someone you love has cancer, and the infinitely nuanced way in which a story can be told through pictures is what makes these works so fascinating.

If you’re interested in more wonderful background, certainly click on the things above. Although I’m certainly not well-read as far as comics go, here are the books that initially got, and held, my attention:

  • Hellboy– I’m a dork, right, so naturally I saw the Hellboy movie at some point. Although it’s not one of the better comic-based movies, I was interested enough to check out the source material; it turns out a few of them are available online for free. Despite my undying hatred of H.P.Lovecraft, I’m a huge fan of the whole occult/folklorish kind of atmosphere this comic creates, and thoroughly enjoyed the two in the series I’ve picked up so far. This particular comic undoubtedly falls more in the Batman/X-Men category than that of Mom’s Cancer, but it nonetheless stands out in my mind for its very sharp, distinctive artwork. Plus, like I said, it’s a ton of fun to read.
  • Bone– This is a fairly well-known and respected comic from Jeff Smith, and despite being highly regarded by other comic artists, I was somewhat disappointed with it. It was initially published in several volumes over the course of a decade or so, and with the recent conclusion was collected into a one volume edition. The drawings themselves are consistently excellent, the characters are wonderfully well-developed, and the opening third of the series has an immediate charm; in all these respects, the series was a great read. For me what held it down was the plot, which becomes very Dungeons & Dragons-ish the farther into it you get. Much as I enjoy playing D&D, the sorts of stories you see in a game session are not the kind of thing you want to be reading. Tenuously connected plot points, the princess thought dead secretly living as the woodsman’s daughter, a magic force permeating the world that an ancient evil seeks to corrupt- these are things I could have done without. It’s won a whole stack of awards, though, so don’t put too much stock in this opinion.
  • Flight– This is an anthology of short pieces, all drawn by up-and-coming webcomic artists. That may not sound too promising, but the collection is, in fact, really fantastic, and I hear that Vol. 2 is as well, though I haven’t read it yet. Many of the stories in this book deal in some manner with flying, but not all of them- the book is really a showcase of artistic styles, some of which depart pretty drastically from what most people would consider “traditional comic,” to very impressive effect. Relatedly, the guy who edits the Flight series (Kazu Kibuishi) also draws a monthly webcomic called Copper that has some of the best artwork you will see in a webcomic. His Daisy Kutter series has also won or been nominated for an award, something like that.

That’s about it. I’m hoping to get into the Sandman series when I’ve got some cash, also Heavy Liquid by Paul Pope. And as far as honest-to-God syndicated comics go, Complete Calvin & Hobbes is hitting this Fall, and will rock. AND there’s some comic-based movie called V for Vendetta coming out soon. I don’t know a thing about the comic, but the movie is starring Hugo Weaving, and what he does in the movie is kick ass, so chances are it will be really good.

If any of you guys have recommendations or comments, you should, you know, leave a comment. But not if you have a remark. We don’t truck with those here.

Written by Daniel Grady

August 8, 2005 at 22:10

Posted in Books

Ein Kommentar

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We read a short fable by Kafka today in the German literature course I’m kind of taking here in Münster. It seemed really good to me, so feast your eyes upon both the original, a translation by my own hand, and some comments we made about it.

Ein Kommentar

Es war sehr früh am Morgen, die Straβen rein und leer, ich ging zum Bahnhof. Als ich eine Turmuhr mit meiner verglich, sah ich, daβ es schon viel später war, als ich geglaubt hatte, ich muβte mich sehr beeilen, der Schrecken über diese Entdeckung lieβ mich im Weg unsicher werden, ich kannte mich in dieser Stadt noch nicht sehr gut aus, glücklicherweise war ein Schutzmann in der Nähe, ich lief zu ihm und fragte ihn atemlos nach dem Weg. Er lächelte und sagte: “Von mir willst du den Weg erfahren?” “Ja,” sagte ich, “da ich ihn selbst nicht finden kann.” “Gib’s auf, gib’s auf” sagte er und wandte sich mit einem groβen Schwunge ab, so wie Leute, die mit ihrem Lachen allein sein wollen.

And here follows my attempt at a translation:

A Commentary

It was very early in the morning, the street clean and vacant, I was going to the train station. When I compared the clock in a tower with my own, I saw that it was much later than I had thought, I needed to make great haste, the shock of this discovery left me unsure of my way, I did not yet know this city well, fortunately there was a policeman nearby, I ran to him and breathlessly asked him the way. He laughed and said: “You want to learn the way from me?” “Yes,” I said, “for I cannot find it myself.” “Give it up, give it up” he said and turned away with a great swing, as people do who wish to be alone with their laughter.

This was a great story for me, first because it’s short enough for me to get my head around in German, and second because it’s very interesting. I was surprised by how quickly problems arose in translating it; there are always certain elements of language that can’t be conveniently rendered in another tongue, but the fact that I saw instances of that in a piece this short was unexpected. There are two places in this story where my translation fails to capture the subtext of the original.

The first, and less problematic of the two, is the part which reads “luckily there was a policeman nearby.” The word Kafka uses, “Schutzmann,” is definitely referring to a police officer, but its literal meaning is more along the lines of “man who protects,” the implication being that he is both a representative of the authority of the state, but also has a more allegorical function, which I’ll mention below.

The second problematic passage is the ‘answer’ the policeman gives when he is asked about the way: “Von mir willst du den Weg erfahren?” The important point here is that, in the original, the policeman addresses the narrator with ‘du’ rather that ‘Sie.’ In German, there are two ways to say ‘you’ to someone, one of which is formal and used for speaking to most people you meet, and the other is informal and used only for speaking to friends, peers, and children. Unless the policeman and the narrator are very well acquainted, he is being very rude and patronizing by implying that the narrator is like a child.

Now for deeper meaning: in our class, we read this as a parable pointing out the futility of looking to the state/church authority for guidance. Consider: we have the character of the narrator walking through an empty city who raises his head to a clock tower, just as a man will look to heaven for guidance. Instead of a traditional god, however, the narrator’s eyes meet with a symbol of earthly authority. Comparing his clock with the one in the tower and finding that they don’t match, he naturally assumes his is incorrect. The picture we have is that of a man who seeks to work within the system, where the system is the church or the bureaucracy, which are equivalent in Kafka’s eyes.

The problem for the narrator comes when he finds that he does not know how to find his way through the city; he is an alien there. Going to the obvious figure in search of help leads nowhere- the policeman either doesn’t know or isn’t telling. The narrator asking for the “way” is an obvious metaphor for finding the way in a religious sense, and Kafka again equates religion and bureaucracy by posing such a loaded question not to a priest but to a police officer. The narrator naturally receives no enlightenment from the officer, and you could read the name “protection man” as being an implication that his function is to ‘protect’ the narrator from the discovery of the empty void behind the facade of authority. We’re left with the image of the narrator running through empty, meaningless streets looking for a way that does not exist.

Of course, it’s easy for me to interpret it that way, since I hate bureaucracies too. We should all just stop paying taxes and live in a demand-driven econo-government. Yeah. Anyhow, I thought it was a pretty well-crafted little story, and hopefully you at least enjoyed reading Kafka, if not my comments.

Written by Daniel Grady

June 16, 2005 at 17:30

Posted in Books

Merit-based economies and Schoenberg

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A few days ago I mentioned reading Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, and said it was good and fun and all, but not outstanding. Well, it’s been turning over in my mind, and the more I think about it the more appealing I find his whole idea of a merit-based economy. I’ve got no idea if this is something that other people have written about previously or what, but Doctorow sets his story in a society that no longer uses money; science has advanced to the point where all the necessities of life are essentially free for the taking. A person’s ‘worth,’ in this society, is determined by the amount of respect others have for them. Read about it here.

What got me thinking about this was Arnold Schoenberg, whom we’ve been studying in my music history class. Schoenberg was the first composer to develop any kind of coherent system for writing atonal music. Now, the phrase ‘systemetized atonal music’ is kind of misleading, because it makes it sound like such music would have an audible, coherent structure, which isn’t the case. Schoenberg spent some time before he developed his system, called serialism, writing atonal music without any particular blueprint. His suite Pierrot Lunaire is probably the most famous example of this. His efforts to devise a system for writing atonal music that didn’t rely on an external text for structure ultimately led to his creation of serialism.

Serialism, or the twelve-tone system, was a method that allowed Schoeberg to compose pieces that were completely atonal, yet still afforded the composer a framework in which to organize a work. Serialistic compositions are masterpieces of mathematical precision, rife with clever juxtapositions and inversion of lines, and absolutely unintelligible when listened to. In order to understand a twelve-tone piece on even the most basic level, you have to sit down with the score and analyze it. In fact, there’s really not much of a point in listening to the piece in the first place, because it’s not going to help you understand what’s going on, and you certainly won’t enjoy it.

Schoenberg’s earlier atonal pieces frequently sound like a group of instruments playing more or less random notes in no particular rhythm. His later serialistic pieces, which are possessed of an incredibly stringent, erudite structure, also sound like a group of instruments playing random notes in no particular rhythm. Interestingly, you can play one piece from each period of Schoenberg’s career to a trained musician or composer, and nine times out of ten they won’t be able to tell if the piece is serialistic or not.

The point is that Schoeberg created a system by which all the humanity could be removed from the process of writing ‘music;’ but the end result was not really art, rather, it was nothing more than intellectual masturbation. Schoenberg claimed his music was a natural extension of the development of music, and so wrote his first serialistic piece, a piano suite, based on traditional classical forms. What to him was a way of fitting his work in with the great masterpieces of the past to me seems like an attempt to legitimize something that can barely be called music.

But, what thinking about Doctorow’s book got me to realize is that, although my opinion about Schoenberg is shared by a shockingly large number of people, it’s not the whole story. Clearly not everyone feels this way, since we still at least study Schoenberg, and the crucial factor for the man himself would have been if enough people considered his work meritorious for him to continue doing it. It doesn’t matter so much that I happen to think his music is crap; there are people who find it richly rewarding, and on the basis of their opinion his work has some merit. So, moral of the story is that Daniel learned to be more open-minded.

It strikes me as kind of funny that even today, artists and scientists, the people who move society forward, are following something like this merit based system; few of them are well-paid, but they continue to do their work because they’re inspired to do so and because of the respect it earns them among their peers. Maybe one day the rest of us will catch up.

I think I lost my point halfway through the rant about Schoenberg. Sorry. Only one more final, thank god.

Written by Daniel Grady

May 7, 2005 at 01:37

Posted in Books, Music, Rants

Hey Look

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The Modern Word has an interview with the guy who’s translating Umberto Eco’s new novel. AND the New Yorker has the whole damn first chapter! I’m excited.

Umberto Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna. He’s also an extremely good writer. The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Island of the Day Before, and Baudolino have all been penned by his hand. If you want to read one of his books, Baudolino would probably be a good place to start because it’s funny and easy to understand (on one level) while retaining the depth and subtlety of his other novels.

Not everyone likes Eco, and some accuse him, perhaps rightly so, of intellectual grandstanding. It’s hard to argue that Foucault’s Pendulum doesn’t fall into this trap. Despite this, however, his books are extrememly interesting and rewarding reads. Plus, you just feel so damn proud of yourself for finishing one.

Written by Daniel Grady

May 4, 2005 at 01:41

Posted in Books

Down and Out

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Just finished reading Cory Doctorow‘s novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. (Doctorow is a co-editor of Boing Boing, which Technorati has consistently rated as the most popular blog on the internet for some time.) Thought it was pretty decent, fun to read, well-imagined. It’s a sci-fi story set in the fairly impending future, but definitely not a space-opera type deal. It’s just a story about a guy who lives and works at Disney World, and about his life getting crapped up, and him trying to redeem himself. The story was good, definintely worth the time. Don’t know that I’d pay money for it, but fortunately, you don’t have to.

Written by Daniel Grady

May 3, 2005 at 12:02

Posted in Books