Extracted and analysed ten years worth of my Kindle highlights

Have spent a dozen hours this week slowly getting my highlights out of the Amazon cloud and then putting them into my own note-taking software. This lets me access roughly ten years of highlighted passages from over 500 books (it doesn't include the large number of public domain books that I read and highlighted, which is a shame.) It's interesting to see the kinds of passages that struck me.

Early on, I sometimes highlighted passages that struck me as good descriptive writing. I've never been great at descriptive writing, and I still mourn the deficit. Prose fiction is essentially composed of four things: sense perception; dialogue; narrative summary; and rumination. Nobody wants to overuse rumination (because the entire internet and most of the noise in our own head is already composed of rumination), so if you're not good at desciption, then you're essentially left with work that's mostly dialogue and narrative summary. Kind of a pain!

But at the same time, I just don't like describing things. In my own life, I'm not particularly observant or present--my life is mostly disembodied and mental, full of remembrances and thoughts and feelings and flashes of perception. Anyway, ten years ago I was still trying to get good at this stuff, which is why I would highlight passages like this:

The coast, the endlessly rewinding spills of the tide, green curbs of seawater breaking into flat white sizzling foam.
--Private Citizen by Tony Tulathimutte

That's pretty good descriptive writing. I probably wouldn't put 'rewinding' and 'spills' and 'curbs' into the same image, because it's a mixed metaphor--but the basic conceit (the ebb of waves looks like the rewinding of the initial crash) is something I could never come up with.

But that's really a minority of what I highlighted. In general, my highlights fall into three categories:

  • aphorisms
  • neat bits of narrative summary
  • good observations about human nature

I am a sucker for a good aphorism (who isn't?), and I've got hundreds in here. The Journals of Jules Renard provide a few good ones, like:

To have a horror of the bourgeois is bourgeois.


Modesty is becoming to the great. What is difficult is to be modest when one is a nobody.

Lol, whose are fun, aren't they? I've always wanted to be a person who knows quotes.

Neat bits of narrative summary
Once I stopped trying to become a better descriptive writer, I started leaning more heavily on narrative summary (where I've had a bit more success developing my skills), and over the years I've highlighted a lot of neat passages that show what a far-ranging narrator can do:

Here's a bit from the third volume of Knausgaard, for instance, which mixes summary and rumination:

After the moving van had left and we got into the car, Mom, Dad, and I, and we drove down the hill and over the bridge, it struck me with a huge sense of relief that I would never be returning, that everything I saw I was seeing for the final time. That the houses and the places that disappeared behind me were also disappearing out of my life, for good. Little did I know then that every detail of this landscape, and every single person living in it, would forever be lodged in my memory with a ring as true as perfect pitch.

Or this passage from Carol Shield's Small Ceremonies, which is not truly embodied, not truly in scene, but is more of a description of what it feels like to send out christmas cards.

This is a long, tedious task, and it irritates me to separate and put in order the constellations of our friends and to send them each these feeble scratched messages. But for the sake of the return, for the crash of creamy envelopes blazing with seals that will soon spill down upon us, I push on. For I want to hear from the O’Malleys who lived across the hall from us in our first apartment. I want to know if the Gorkys are still together and where the best man at our wedding, Kurt Weisman, has moved. Dr. Lawrence who supervised Martin’s graduate work and his wife Bettina always write us from Florida and so do the Grahams, the Lords, the Reillys, the Jensens. What matter that they were often dull and that we might have drifted apart eventually? What matter that they were sometimes stingy or overly frank or forgetful? They want to wish us a merry Christmas. They want to wish us all the best in the New Year. I can’t help but take the printed card literally; these are our friends; they love us. We love them.

Again, I wish that I was better at narrative summary. To work best, it can't just stay in summary (although sometimes it does)--it should move delicately through concrete details and rumination and memory and back into summary. Oh well, I'll get there someday!

True-feeling observations about human nature

This probably comprises the largest single category. It's just a bunch of stuff, whether from novels or nonfiction or memoir or philosophy or essays, that feels very true! It's a collection of that weird sort of fact that, when you hear it, you feel like you already knew this thing--even though you didn't.

Rutherford sometimes wondered, running his long nervous fingers over his pale brow and through his prematurely gray hair, if there was any quality more respected by the timid remnants of an older New York society, even by the flattest-heeled and most velvet-gowned old maid, than naked aggression.
--Collected Stories of Louis Auchincloss

Sometimes these observations come in the form of a type, where you instantly think: I know this person!

Everyone who knew Ovcharov proclaimed him a fine fellow. He earned this appellation through his deference to the ladies, amenability, tidiness, indefatigability, and his enthusiasm for all of society’s amusements, along with his customary readiness to expound on absolutely anything and equal readiness to listen to absolutely anything. But whatever society Ovcharov appeared in throughout his wandering life, he was never anything more than a fine fellow. Nowhere did he leave a strong impression; he was easily liked and easily forgotten. With women, in love and hate, he played only an incidental role; among serious people his presence brought on a slight sense of boredom; and through his entire life he had failed to attain a single devoted friend.
--City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

Oftentimes these observations are aphoristic in style, like this one from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

The first moment of the public safety is devoted to gratitude and joy; but the second is diligently occupied by envy and calumny.

Sometimes writers say, "All your sentences should be beautiful." This is absolute nonsense. Nobody can read and remember every sentence. Your story as a whole should be beautiful. There is no need to write in soundbytes. I've read some fantastic books that haven't inspired me to highlight anything at all.

Nor do I think I'm a particularly highlighteable author. But when it comes to my two published books, my most popular highlights have been:

I'm not a sympathetic main character. My quirks are not lovable. I am not clumsy. I am not overwhelmed by life. I am not unlucky in love.
--Enter Title Here

The thing is, you can't just be yourself if whenever people look at you they see something entirely different
--We Are Totally Normal

I immensely enjoyed doing all this database work to pull everything out and get it organized. I taught myself the basics of regex so I could extract the author and title data from the file names and add in the proper taxes. Makes me feel quite accomplished. I do sometimes think maybe I ought to learn computers and become a computer-doing-person. I'd have been good at it. I have the mind for it. But it's fun enough as a little hobby.

Not sure what my next digital maintenance project will be. I do have lots of journal entries socked away in various places: might be worth extracting those and putting them all together in one spot. Have also been meaning to do some scanning projects.

Oh! I continue to highlight, of course. Right now I'm reading Es'kia Mphabele's Down Second Avenue. He's a mid-20th century Black South African writer, and this is his memoir of growing up and becoming a man.

My passion for reading grew stronger. The white family for whom my mother worked gave me old newspapers and periodicals. They merely shrugged their shoulders when my mother told them why I wanted the papers. More than that, they showed no interest. I was disappointed. I thought naïvely that if they were superior to me and my kind they should show some interest in a less fortunate creature who wanted to acquire something like the degree of literacy they enjoyed. Even if it were the kind of interest that might prompt one to retort: ‘Say, he reads English!’ Yes, I was very proud to be able to read English

I mean doesn't that seem so true? Obviously people whose lives are based in a system of racial superiority will be unwilling to see any signs of competence amongst the Black people around them. It's not that they're consciously putting down or dismissing him--they simply won't allow themselves to hear the fact that he might have a skill they could value.

Random Article

Do people want dogs only for their looks? What are the motivations, values and behaviours of those who decide to go out and buy a dog today? These questions are part of a small but growing area of study. Although the research is still preliminary, available data suggest that physical appearance is the single most important factor driving dog-acquisition practices in the United States and throughout much of the West. And the look that we’re going for right now is ‘cute’.
-- "Breeding Dogs To Be Cute And Anthropomorphic Is Animal Cruelty"

Mind is blown, is there a reason for wanting a dog besides their cuteness? Do some dogs do the dishes or something? Is there a dog that'll pay rent? There's a genre of article that seems to traffic in the weirdest sort of mock outrage. Of course people want dogs to be cute. Of course dogs are bred to be cute. Of course it's not good for dogs' health. If we cared about their health, there wouldn't be any dog-breeding at all. Sheesh. But all that aside, it's still a good article about the way cuteness works, how cuteness gets engineered into dogs, and the toll it takes on them (i.e. we may purposefully breed dogs with high needs precisely because being 'helpless' is cute)

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Rebranding this blog. Not moving to substack. Still hate transphobes

I started my personal journal in 2008, when the format was already dying. Now after fifteen years it's come back again--Twitter is done, newsletters rule the roost. I subscribe to like ten paid newsletters! And I've thought, you know, I probably shouldn't ignore this phenomenon entirely.

At the same time, the only reason I am still here is that I'm on an open platform, accessible from the web at large, and one where I have free access to the data. If I'd had a lot invested in my Twitter account, that would be gone now, for instance. Same if I'd gotten big on, I dunno, Medium or TinyLetter, which both seem like wastelands.

It makes a lot of financial sense to get in early on a platform and try to make a lot of subscribers quick. Early in the life of a platform, they tend to incentivize and promote discovery of new accounts. Eventually, platforms begin to monetize potential discovery though, by introducing advertising, so if you want to grow you have to pay to acquire subscribers (Twitter is one of the few that even ten years into its life cycle allowed some kind of organic discovery even for non-paid accounts).

Which is just to say, it's more sensible than not to chase the new platform and hope to grow quick enough that you can leap across platforms when the time comes. The moment of the open, freely-accessible internet will never come again. There's never gonna be a time again when mere search engine discovery will get you new users. You will always need a platform that incentivizes user discovery, as Substack currently does.

Nonetheless I'm not moving to substack. Just would hurt my heart to give up my little piece of the Internet that I built on my own, for fifteen years, and to give it over to a platform that seems like a bit of a haven for transphobes, quite frankly. So...no. On WordPress I remain. I thought about mirroring to substack, but that's not something either substack or wordpress wants you to do, so I thought fuck it, I'll just stay here.

That being said, there'll be a few changes around here! The first thing is a rebranding. I started to feel like the old layout was a bit stale, so I went with this new minimalist theme, it's called Seedlet. It allows me to just focus on the content. Secondly, I'm renaming the site again. It used to be called Blotter-Paper. Then in like 2013 I changed it to The War On Loneliness. And now I'm changing it to Woman of Letters.

Why? Well, just to keep things fresh. But that's also basically what I am.

As readers might know, I've gotten a bit heartsick over all the transphobia in the old-books-loving community. If Edmund Wilson or Lionel Trilling were alive right now, they'd most assuredly be transphobes. Most of the people online who are seriously interested in literature also seem to think the existence of trans people is somehow inexplicable or bizarre and go out of their way to invalidate us. As in the amusing case where an author decided to use they/them pronouns to describe people who had _only_ defined themselves as men. They argued that we can't know how they identified. But can't we? They identified as men! The use of they/them in this case was a middle-ground to allow some ambiguity in how they might've seen themselves and to avoid ahistorically 'claiming' them as trans people. But to not use male pronouns, especially for some of these people who lived and died as men, is a far greater anachronism! It's literally forcing our own notions of biological essentialism upon them (Here's the book, by the way).

I mean, yeah, but isn't it ahistorical in a MUCH BIGGER way to call them women? And yet most people think this way. They've got blinders on. They're like, oh, trans people are the crazy ones, projecting our notions onto the past, if we say a person who lived and died as a man, and often was regarded by their community as a man, was actually...a man. No, the litterateurs ay, they're a woman. To say otherwise is to be ahistorical.

People literally can't see the irony of this statement.

Part of me wants to go to war over this tendency, because it's so smarmy. The, JK Rowling style "I love trans people, I just care that some MEN are MENACING WOMEN in WOMENS PRISONS AND JAILS." Like, yeah, you love all trans people, except that "you" get to decide who's really trans and who isn't, and everyone who isn't, you get to dismiss as 'really' a man. Rape is illegal, whether you're a man or a woman. Men and women can rape. There is zero evidence that trans women are more likely than cis women to rape (though much more likely TO BE RAPED). So to dwell incessantly on the peculiar threat posed by trans women is the essence of transphobia.

And if people were just like, yeah I think trans women are gross and invalid, that would be one thing. But that very smarminess, that very pretense at caring, makes you think they could be reached. But they can't.

My response has been to treat all dispatches from the outside world as mere textual documents. I imagine myself at the top of a very tall tower, equipped with a pneumatic tube, and I open the messages, read through them, chortle about the affairs of the fallen world, and then look through the books in my library to find that one obscure quote that I need for my article. Hence, woman of letters.

Okay, to get off the whole transphobes in the literary world thing, I also have to say, my career is weird.

This month, my YA novel went to copy edits, I wrote and had accepted a YA short story for an anthology, I saw a short story come out in Analog of all places, and I think that I had a poem come out somewhere too (The Tampa Review?) and I had the piece come out in Tablet too. Who the hell has something come out in Analog and the Tampa Review in the same month. Weird! The fact that I have amongst the most high-brow interests and tastes of anyone I know is consistently amusing to me, especially when I get slammed as an elitist or something.

Like, gurl, I write young adult novels! Some chick whose novel is coming out from Knopf and who went to the Iowa Writer's Workshop is gonna be like, wow, this YA novelist and sci-fi writer is an elitist. Silly! Utterly silly! It's consistently amusing the way that literary writers pretend to some kind of mass tastes. Whereas I don't pretend to be of the people in any way, shape or form (in particular, I lack that mystical communion with the 'average American' that intellectuals love to channel in order to shout each other down), but out of all of us who write about literary stuff, I'm the only person selling books to average people!

Not a lot of average people, it's true, and even if it was a lot, it would be meaningless, since popularity of any sort is mostly a fluke, but it's still amusing!

No weekly links this week and maybe no more blog posts this week either. I'm getting over a bout of facial feminization surgery that I had last Monday. Was under the knife for twelve hours! Definitely quite fatigued for a week, and even today I'm not the tippy-toppiest, and my face is looking pretty rough. Will tell you about it later. Oh, and in the meantime, my new URL is woman-of-letters.com. The old ones will keep working indefinitely too of course! And of course here's the subscription link, if you want to start getting my newsletter as emails.

Switching to Android; and reactions to Aldington’s DEATH OF A HERO

Hello friends. I got a new phone, and it's an android. My wife said moving to android had impacted our marriage way more than me transitioning did. She's not wrong!

I just wanted a change, and I got tired of feeling beholden to a hardware company. Nothing wrong with Apple, but I should be able to buy whatever phone I want, and in this case that was a really fancy folding phone. It's the big samsung phone that unfolds into a small tablet. Not really something anyone needed or wanted, but I like it. Also the e-reader software I use (KOReader) isn't supported on iOS.

I also got a new phone number to go with the new phone, so it's been an adjustment. I still have the old number, so I'm not in a rush to switch everyone over. But it's nice to not be bombarded with spam calls and texts. The hardest thing is the two-factor authentification systems a lot of online services use, including a lot of random ones. So I'll want to, say, order something from Uber Eats and then I'll have to dig up my old phone to input the code. I don't really want to put my new phone number into the system bc then I'll get spam calls again. Eventually I'll move the old number to, like, a google voice app so it just becomes a virtual number or something. I dunno.

Android isn't as good as iOS. I can't whole-heartedly recommend it. Kinda like switching to windows, it works less well, but you can do more. With Android if there's something I want to do, I can change it. Like the interface for the home screen wasn't great, so I installed a new launcher, and now it's really cool and customizable, and I can access my apps however I want to. Of course with iOS you don't have these problems in the first place!

And one misses certain iOS features. Like when I was completely on iOS my headphones would switch seamlessly from device to device as I started using different ones. Now I have to fiddle with stuff to get sound from a new device.

But you know what? Maybe technology isn't meant to be seamless? Because ultimately, all the seamlessness just led to more efficient consumption of Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or Netflix. Not particularly useful stuff. Like lately I've been using the Samsung Fold Pen to write my texts (bc I find the virtual keyboard a bit difficult to use), and it's kind of fun to do handwriting, even though it's slower.

Who the heck knows?

This is my last day of childcare before my surgery. Am cleaning up some odds and ends. I've been reading a new different books lately, but last night I started Richard Aldington's Death of a Hero and found myself quite gripped. It's a novel that at least attempts to be a social history of the type of young intellectual who died in World War I--the way they were raised, their attitudes towards sex and work and religion, and their various despairs and confusions. The writing is lively and aphoristic. The book was censored heavily by the publishers (apparently most books were back then) but the author elected to mark the censored bits with a row of asterisks, which is fascinating, as it leaves you to wonder what's getting left out.

It's like no other British book of its era, very personable, intimate and modern, with a far-ranging omniscient narrator--almost as if Anthony Trollope had written a novel, but in a modern voice, or maybe like if George Orwell had allowed more of his rage to show through in his books. Here's a bravura passage:

How can we atone for the lost millions and millions of years of life, how atone for those lakes and seas of blood? Something is unfulfilled, and that is poisoning us. It is poisoning me, at any rate, though I have agonised over it, as I now agonise over poor George, for whose death no other human being has agonised. What can we do? Headstones and wreaths and memorials and speeches and the Cenotaph—no, no; it has got to be something in us. Somehow we must atone to the dead—the dead, murdered, violently-dead soldiers. The reproach is not from them, but in ourselves. Most of us don’t know it, but it is there, and poisons us. It is the poison that makes us heartless and hopeless and lifeless—us, the war generation, and the new generation too. The whole world is blood-guilty, cursed like Orestes, and mad, and destroying itself, as if pursued by an infinite legion of Eumenides. Somehow we must atone, somehow we must free ourselves from the curse—the blood-guiltiness. We must find—where? how?—the greater Pallas who will absolve us on some Acropolis of Justice. But meanwhile the dead poison us and those who come after us.

Oh, also, in case you pick up the book, this is one book where my habit of skipping prologues really got me in trouble. The prologue is a long set up to the book and introduces all the characters. It's really essential. I only went back and read it after I went looking for the introduction. I got interested in reading more of Aldington's novels after this (apparently he was a modernist poet, the husband of H.D. and a wrote a novella that's a long send-up of T.S. Eliot) but this book of his is the only one that's still in print! It was reissued by Penguin Classics.

I found the book because I have a terrible habit of just browsing the Penguin Classics on Amazon and impulse-buying the books that are currently selling for $5.99 or less (the prices of Penguin Classics tends to vary somewhat randomly, going from 4.99 all the way up to fifteen or even twenty dollars sometimes, though the latter is usually only for very long books that've been translated from other languages).

I am enjoying it a lot. You want to know my unpopular opinion about novels? They're fun to read, and they can compete with any other form of entertainment, up to and including video games. I know nobody wants to hear it, but there it is.

A short description of how I came to write for Tablet

This week, I had two pieces published. One was in Tablet. The first is my review of Matthew Salesses's Craft In The Real World. I read the book a year ago and was profoundly unimpressed. I simply didn't believe most of the things the author said about how fiction in other cultures works, and it was surprising to me that the author didn't seem to have read a lot of books that weren't by American authors. This is a book that people are constantly citing and gushing over, and it just seemed like a very "Emperor's New Clothes" situation. You don't want to shit on something that's promoting diversity and tolerance, so you say nothing. The world is full of nonsense, and sometimes it's simply rude to call it out, especially when so many poor and marginalized people seem to find comfort in this specific nonsense.

But when the author took a job at Columbia University's famously exploitative MFA program, I thought, well, if people are going to spend 150k a year to learn from this person, then their ideas should be held up to more scrutiny. I don't mind if people talk some nonsense just to sell books--we all have to make a living, and god knows I play the diversity game the same as every other queer or non-white writer--but ideally the aim is to just con a few dollars out of thousands of people. When you're a professor at Columbia, some of your students are literally ruining their lives with debt in order to study there. And that's fine, too--they're adults and it's their choice. But still, if you're going to make a living by ruining peoples' lives, then your work needs to be really good. The benefit to society has to be worth the cost to these specific people. And in this case, I didn't think the calculus held up.

The essay sat with an editor from LitHub for three months, who said it wasn't right for them. Then it was accepted by the LA Review of Books, by the old editor in chief, Boris. It was edited and ready to go on Jan 21, which happened to be the same week Salesses went viral for an absurd Columbia University syllabus (attracting the ire of Fox News and the like). The article didn't post. Boris had left the journal, but the managing editor said it had been bumped to next week. Next week it didn't post either.

I got a call from the new editor in chief of LARB, who essentially said she didn't agree with the piece politically--she believes that the advice given in Master of the Fine Arts programs was systematically racist and harmful to non-white writers. That may very well be true! It wasn't my experience as a non-white person in an MFA program--my experience was that the advice in MFA programs is systematically nonsense and if slavishly followed will be harmful to writers of any color, but that most people involved know the advice is nonsense, and you just need to pay attention and listen to what people have to teach and discard the rest. But my review wasn't a defense of the MFA, it was a critique of the specific claims made in this specific book.

The call didn't go well. She wanted edits. I was hesitant. We argued, and she pulled the piece. It's odd in the extreme to have a phone call with an editor, but I assume the reason was so there wouldn't be a written record of her objections that I could've then quoted in this blog post. I would have done exactly the same things! I don't fault her for pulling the piece--no editor will publish a potentially controversial article that they disagree with politically. Moreover, she's a new editor, and the LA Review of Books recently had a controversy where the last person they hired to fill her job loudly fell out with them, calling them racist. So it's understandable that she didn't want controversy. If I fault her at all, I fault her for having 'political commitments' that made her unable to see the truth of my arguments.

Feeling somewhat burned by this experience, I pitched Tablet, which is a Jewish journal that's rebranded itself as an anti-woke publication. It's not precisely conservative, but especially in the last year its coverage has taken a transphobic turn. They published a truly bizarre article last summer, for instance, about how the billionaire Pritzker siblings are brainwashing kids into accepting "Synthetic Sexual Identities" (the author of the article refuses to even use the term 'transgender'). The anti-trans stuff is disgusting, but the truth of the matter is that in 2023 it would be very difficult for me to find a journal that agrees with me on aesthetic matters but which isn't anti-trans. I actually have another essay circulating which is about that exact conundrum, but it hasn't found a home yet. The LA Review of Books would've been a fine place for it, but I doubt my work is welcome there anymore.

Well, c'est la vie. The piece is out, and I'm quite pleased with it.

Oh yeah, the second thing that came out was my story in Analog: "Citizen Science", Looking back, it's mostly about my experience as a literary critic who works outside the academy, and how the terms I use are often so different that people in the Academy don't even understand what I'm talking about. But that doesn't necessarily mean I'm wrong or confused (although it sometimes does)! Like in the case of this Salesses article, it's precisely because I am not an academic that I am familiar with both contemporary American MFA-derived fiction and with Classical Chinese literature--to find that combination in a typical English department would be rare in the extreme. But that's neither here nor there.

Watched IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE, and I am forever changed

Last night I watched Wong Kar Wai's film In The Mood For Love, and I'm going to be honest--I am forever changed. It's the most beautiful film I've ever seen. It's profoundly humbling that within my lifetime something so gorgeous and ambitious has been made. The plot of the movie is simple: a man and a woman move into rooms in adjacent apartments in Hong Kong; they are both married, but their spouses are often absent; they grow closer and closer.

Everything about this movie was perfect. What stands out most is the color palette: pale green is the color that predominates in almost every shot; then there's often some red and yellow and occasionally blue. Even during the daytime, the colors are like nothing you've seen before. It's painterly, as if every frame is an Edward Hopper painting. The movie is told with incredible economy: the main characters' spouses never appear head-on. Events are clearly described, but only once: if you're not paying attention you'll miss, for instance, the slippers that the male protagonist gets for his room after the female protagonist spends the night there in her high heels and suffers from aching feet.

The music is haunting and captivating. All the conversations--even those about random stuff, like the conversations between Ms. Chan (the female protagonist) and her boss--are spot on, and only contain exactly as many exchanges as you need.

And of course Maggie Cheung is gorgeous: her dresses are perfect, her makeup is always on point, her hair is styled into a tall, voluminous 1960s haircut (the movie largely takes place in 1963), and her every gesture feels pregnant with meaning. The entire movie is just suffused with loneliness and with longing. And the ending is even more brilliant, showing how after a while we even become nostalgic for that pain. It's a sad movie, but it also felt hopeful, humanistic.

It's incredible that people in modern era are still able to make such ambitious films and to execute them so perfectly. I actually paused the movie twice and cleaned the apartment, took care of the dog, etc, because the pleasure I was experiencing was too much to bear.

That's something I also noticed lately, while I was reading too books by transfem authors: Imogen Binnie's Nevada and Alison Rumfitt's Tell Me I'm Worthless. I was experiencing so much pleasure that it became frightening, and that I at times was tempted to put the books back and not go back to them, simply because I enjoyed them so much and was so deeply immersed in them. They dragged me out of myself, making me give up my own thoughts and cares--or making those thoughts and cares painful--and that kind of depersonalization was painful. I like being myself! I don't love being a spectator to someone else's vision. But it reminds me a bit of Schopenhauer--to be deeply engaged with a work of art means viewing it impersonally, from the standpoint of the universe itself--and it's terribly frightening to leave the ego behind and let go of yourself, even though it's something we all long for.

In some ways, the ceaseless drive for distraction--podcasts, Twitter, etc--are a search for escape, but it's a safe, manageable escape. This form of escape is grounding, precisely because it still involves some residue of the self. It gives pleasure, but it doesn't feel like an attack.

The most complete escape a person can have nowadays is to play video games. Here it is possible to lose oneself completely for any number of hours, and, moreover, because you're in control of the action, you don't feel like a spectator--instead you create a new self inside the game, a self with its own identity and its own cares, and a self which is carefully managed, by the game, so that its frictionless and meaningful.

Games are a powerful aesthetic experience. My years spent adventuring in the wastelands of various Fallout games form a cohesive experience--I have been in zombie-filled amusement parks and in deep underground bunkers and on the ruins of Boston skyscrapers. I carry those experiences with me forever.

But at the same time, games feel very sterile. Because what do those experiences mean? They recur at odd times, and all I feel is a longing to go back and replay the game--they don't inform my view of the universe, they don't expand my character, or even deepen my aesthetic appreciation. Games have the formal structure of art (they're clearly an aesthetic experience) but not the content (an experience that sheds light on the human condition), just like track and field has the formal structure of hunting down a fleeing game-animal (the same running, jumping, throwing, etc), but not the content (if you win, you get to eat).

random articles

I just read Erik Hoel's [reasoned explication on why AI might be an existential threat to humanity](https://open.substack.com/pub/erikhoel/p/how-to-navigate-the-ai-apocalypse?r=hjhja&utm_campaign=post&utm_medium=email. I'm not convinced it will be, but I'm definitely convinced we should shut down AI research on the off chance that it might become a threat. Read the article and see if you agree.

Also enjoyed Rachel Connolly's article on life's losers. I'm also struck by the number of upper-middle-class people who just...don't seem to have any values? Like...why are they living? What do they want? What do they care about? This comes through whenever professors claim to be afraid of being canceled. People claim to idolize, say, Socrates, who faced death for his opinions, but they're afraid of stating their real opinions about, say, books, because they're afraid of people getting mad at them on the internet. If you truly think your opinions are valuable, then you ought to state them precisely because they are unpopular. People want to be rewarded for saying and doing the 'right' things, without bearing any risk. I don't think people should be fired for their opinions, but I also think everyone ought to have a few opinions that they're willing to be fired for.

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Watched Vertigo, Rashomon, and a bunch of other really old movies

Hello friendly people. I am going off estrogen today in preparation for gender-affirming facial surgery next week, so I'm going to try to take it easy and not be a monster. Three months ago I was off estrogen for a day and I vomited in the street. A few weeks ago I was off for a day, and I just got terribly angry about everything. But now I am prepared. I'm gonna keep control.

Lately I've gotten very into classic movies. It's because I switched to a Galaxy Fold 4 phone, which unfolds into a rather square tablet, which is perfect for watching movies and shows that have a 4:3 aspect ratio, so I was like...let's find some of those.

This is not the first time I've tried to get into old movies. I've had at least three goes at it in the past. And they inevitably went the same way: join the Criterion channel, watch several old French movies, be like, "I enjoy this a little bit I guess" and then stop and cancel my membership. The truth was that while I liked the movies (the only ones I remember were a few Godard films), I didn't enjoy them more than I was bored by them.

Something changed recently though, and I found myself much more engaged! I started by watching Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa's story of an investigation into an unexplained death. All of the witnesses, including the spirit of the dead man (consulted through a medium) have a different story about what happened. You know the conceit, it's a classic.

The movie is really anchored by Toshio Mifune's incredible performance as the bearded, loincloth-wearing bandit Tajomaru. He's just electrifying on-screen. He's like an animal. Very unsophisticated, rough, constantly scratching himself, laughing in peoples' faces and mocking them. His face is just unbelievable, especially when he opens his eyes wide, cackles, and then grimaces, pulls a momentary contortion and then lets it go slack. It feels melodramatic at first, and I suppose it is--especially since nobody else is on the same register--but as the movie progresses you see there's an act there. He is uncomfortable around more sophisticated people. He's emotionally quite simple and doesn't understand the psychodrama in which he's found himself.

I will say that I didn't really understand why the Buddhist monk came away so deeply believing that everyone was polluted and evil. In the story I saw, everyone seemed very flawed and afraid and almost like they'd been trapped into (some of) the crimes they'd done. And their lies came out of some vestigial sense of honor and integrity. It showed the opposite--everyone still has morality operating in them, even if it doesn't win out.

Anyway, that wasn't the only movie I watched. I also saw two version of The Lower Depths (one by Kurosowa and one by Renoir), and I watched Vertigo and Citizen Kane. I was a bit astonished by how good all the movies were. I mean they're obviously the best movies of all time, but they're also very old--the best old movies are as good as the best modern movies. Kind of makes you wonder why we even bother! To make a Citizen Kane so many things had to come together perfectly: script, acting, funding. Even the aging makeup was so flawless that I genuinely had no idea how old anyone was. Something, to me, seems very flawed with the auteur theory, because no one person could ever control all the variables in place. Whether you're allowed to make a movie freely or not is almost entirely luck (and sometimes your constraints work to your benefit!) But who knows, maybe I'll develop more opinions as I watch more.

I also rapidly grew dissatisfied with the tiny square screen of my phone and switched to the ipad (which has a similar aspect ratio). Oh, some of these old movies look so good remastered. Vertigo looked incredible. The colors were so vivid, and they'd managed to make it high-resolution without making everything look stagey and fake. It was a joy to watch, even though it was my least favorite of these movies. I mean it was a very charming film, and the performances were delightful, but I maybe just didn't get the broader picture. It sounds like I'm saying the movie had no social angle, but it's not that--Rashomon didn't have a social angle either--it's just that ultimately I felt like I didn't have that sense of theme. In particular, I didn't understand how Scottie's fear and vertigo and sense of failure all came together with the specific story being told. But who knows, maybe I'll get it someday.

Paul Park’s City Made of Words

Hello friends, I've moved on from Typora! Typora is old news! Now I write in Obsidian. Long live Obsidian. Obsidian is basically the exact same thing, but there's mobile apps and it's really good at syncing and there's a lot of plug-ins, so you can use it as an all-purpose journaling and note-taking app too. I'm writing a short story in it now, for an anthology! Story is going rather well.

Also managed to get my Calibre server up and running and accessible anywhere on the internet behind its own domain name! Am feeling very proud of myself, since that involved getting an SSL certificate and doing some other strange stuff that I'm not really qualified to do. I've been using the "Random Book" function on the Calibre web browser more often. Sometimes you don't want to do serious reading, you just want to gaze upon the vastness of your library in despair.

At some point I bought a StoryBundle curated by Nick Mamatas (I think?) that consisted of a bunch of PM Press's slim and attractive Outspoken Authors books. And one of them was apparently this volume by Paul Park. I'd read Park back when I was a kid, but I didn't remember much about his work. He's one of these well-respected but quite marginal science fiction figures, like Emma Bull or Maureen McHugh or Michael Bishop--a frequent award nominee but not a frequent award-winner. A writer's writer, in other words (the book has blurbs from Ursula Le Guin, Jonathan Lethem, and Kim Stanley Robinson). Anyway, I started reading the collection and quite liked it.

The stories have a very realist feel, despite their metafictional and fantastic conceits. They often have odd, sudden endings, as if the author has said all they need to say, but the endings work quite well. Several are set in academia and deal with internecine academic feuds, like that between the New Criticism and the insurgent French literary theory. My favorite story was about a professor at an MFA program who's being tortured by an interrogator who asks him to justify his life--the MFA professor is deeply in doubt about the worth of teaching writing, while the interrogator is an MFA-holder who wants to be told that there's some value in the practice. I liked the book, it was fun!

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Books show people at their best; Twitter at their worst

I've gone off the socials lately. I got really sad for a few days and was like, the socials are just making me unhappy. Not because of envy: mostly because of how dumb and transphobic everyone is. The number of people who are overtly transphobic in my end of the literary world is just depressing. It's like you either like old books or think trans women are women; you have to choose. Old books or trans women. I obviously can find lots of literary people who think TW are W (TWaW will be my abbreviation from now on), but they mostly don't like old books, so while I feel affirmed by them and count many of them as my friends, there's not as much point interacting with them as literary people, because our literary interests don't necessarily align.

Anyway that's why I'm not on Twitter. Facebook is much, much better, but I'm just not used to being on it as much. I used to facebook friend people as soon as I met them, to really lock in the friendship, but I got out of the habit.

Now that I'm not on the socials, when I think of something to say about something, I have to hunt down someone who actually knows about that thing, and then text it to them (or just not say the thing at all). My life is very hard

I'm still reading Kagero Nikki--Diary of a Mayfly--a book by a nameless woman known only to history as Mitsishune's mother.1 There's a persistent strand in literary criticism that's about the invention of the self. I've never really understood the concept, but I guess the idea is that with the rise of capitalism, people felt more mechanized and more deracinated from their communities--at the same time, they were provided with a large number of ways to individualize themselves. Thus, literature became obsessed with discovering the authentic self.

The implication is that somehow people in prior times weren't self-reflective and didn't conceptualize themselves as individual actors. Seems a bit iffy to me. Mitsishune's mother seems to have a healthy sense of self. She is very, very sad, because her husband ignores her. The purpose of her life is to serve as consort to this very important man--and she's beautiful and really good at poetry--but he just doesn't seem to come around very often.

In the part I just finished, Mitsishune's mother retreated to the mountains, threatening to become a nun, but her husband and son force her to come home because it looks bad for their wife and mother to abandon their household. She comes back, but she's changed--she doesn't care as much about her husband. She concocts a scheme to adopt his illegitimate daughter and displace some of her energies that way. Somehow her time in the mountains has made her a bit otherworldly, and her husband remains suspicious--he suspects her of continuing to pray and do religious stuff.

Reading the book, it's unbelievable that it was begun in 972 AD. The people seem so real and present. And I was thinking of everything I know about 972. It was a very active time in world history. The Byzantine empire was at a local peak, having incorporated Armenia. The Song dynasty is about to unite China. Central Asia is at the peak of its influence: the Samanid empire is at its height, and the cities of modern-day Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are probably the richest and most culturally vibrant places in the world; Ferdowsi is composing the Shah Nameh. Avicenna is about to be born. Most of our surviving Anglo Saxon manuscripts are being written or are about to be written in England. Otto II is dreaming of re-founding the Roman Empire. Vikings are establishing a state in Ukraine that will someday become Russia. The toltecs dominated the Mexican highlands. The Mississippi culture was developing: in a few years they would begin to create the largest precolumbian America. Just thinking of all these people, one wonders what it would've been like if they could've spoken. This woman, Mitsishune's mother, was clearly capable of such feeling and was drawn to contemplation and to the higher world. What would've happened if she could've been at the court of John Tzimmiskes? Or gone to Bukhara?

Well, who knows--but that's exactly the situation we are in today, and yet people seem so defeated by these possibilities. I think though that we can see the best of people or their worst. Twitter is people at their worst. Yeah they might like old books, but they don't talk about the books, they just talk about how much they don't believe TWaW.

Whereas in books (and, to a lesser extent, essays), we see people at their best. Yeah Mitsishune's mother was a bit of a whiner: her life was better than 99 percent of people alive in 972, but she was also a sensitive soul and a great poet, and she made something beautiful.

It's exciting! I can read a book written in Japan in 972--that's something most people in 972 couldn't do. Now does it mean anything? Will it change the price of butter? No! But it's an incredible aesthetic experience, if we allow ourselves to feel it.

  1. The translation I'm reading, which is AFAIK the only easily available translation, is available for free at this address! Go, go read it, go read it and see. The explanatory notes are also really good, although it's a bit awkward that they come before the page to which they refer, instead of after it. Oh wait, I see now there's another translation by Edward Seidensticker. He's a really good translator, and he did, IMHO, the best translation of Genji. Now I don't know what to pick. It's annoying that he translated the title so differently, or I'd have read his. This is something that happens quite frequently with East Asian literature: people use such different titles that you literally can't tell if a book has actually been translated or not. But Sonja Arntzen's translation (the one I've been reading) is quite good! 

I feel about writing the same way I feel about parenting

Just read Stephen Marche's On Writing And Failure. I enjoyed its erudition and style, but in terms of the overall tone, I wanted to like it much more than I did. I wrote my own cynical guide to writing, as you all know, and it also had an anthemic quality to it, but I guess that I just can't take it all quite as seriously as Marche does.

The book repeatedly says, "No whining" and then involes Machiavelli being tortured, or Boethius being executed, or Anna Akhmatova hiding from the purges. Lots of people have had it tougher than you--there's no particular reason anyone should want your work in the first place!

I dunno. I enjoy hearing peoples' whining. It's what brings us together. And I think the biggest grace we published writers can give less-published writers is to sympathize and to say, "Yes, it's really not fair that something this good isn't getting any bites!" I'm sure Marche agrees with that, by the way, since the book opens with the following rather amusing passage:

“Is it ever easier?” a kid writer asked me recently. “Do you ever grow a thicker skin?” She was suffering, poor thing, after a gorgeous essay about the death of her mother had been rejected by every outlet that could publish it. I had no answer, so I told her a story. Just before the outbreak of COVID, Nathan Englander, the short story writer and novelist, had moved into my neighbourhood in Toronto, and we would sometimes sit around my backyard firepit, drinking and complaining. “Is it ever easier?” I asked him one night. “Do you ever grow a thicker skin?” At the time, some magazine editor had fucked me over, I forget about what. Englander had no answer, so he told me a story. He had been lunching with Philip Roth once. “Is it ever easier?” he asked Roth. “Do you ever grow a thicker skin?” Englander was then about to release a new novel, always a toxically anxious period. Roth didn’t need a story. He had an answer. “Your skin just grows thinner and thinner,” Roth told him. “In the end, they can hold you up to the light and see right through you.”

This passage has me until it gets to the last line. The book is shot through with a sense that writing is agony, that it's torture, that failure is everpresent, and that a writer's eventual fate is silence and obscurity. That very well may be true for lots of people, but it's not my perspective.

I feel about writing the same way I feel about parenting: I don't really see the ultimate existential point, but you have to do something while you're on this earth. I suppose if my writing (or parenting) life was more difficult, I'd need to develop more intellectual scaffolding to support the fact that I continue to do it. If I was being hounded by the Cheka, I'd need to believe that my poetry was worth dying for. I do believe that writing is worth dying for, but that's simply not the choice that I face in everyday life. It's just the choice between spending an hour or two a day doing some writing or spending it watching television. Seen that way, what's the agony? What's the horror?

Obviously, writing quite frequently makes me unhappy, but it's not like people who don't write aren't also unhappy. Life contains a certain amount of unhappiness, and it tends to latch onto whatever is happening right now. It's like I was telling a friend recently, when we were talking about mindfulness. The thing is, trying to be mindful is the suffering. Being present, feeling great about how present you are, feeling bad about feeling great, wondering if you're doing mindfulness wrong, trying to meditate, failing, feeling bad about meditating, having bad emotions and feeling bad that you can't meditate the bad emotions away--that's the suffering, and it's exactly the same suffering you'd have if you weren't mindful.

I'm including a subscription block below, just type in your email and you'll be sent all my posts direct to your inbox. Seems like an absurd thing to want, but apparently this is how people read essays these days

“Long life brings many shames. At most before his fortieth year is full, it is seemly for a man to die.”

Been having a lot of self improvement energy lately. This happens to me periodically. I get amped, make a lot of plans, develop new systems and new ways of being, and oftentimes see really good results. I mean, I lost a lot of weight and kept most of it off for almost ten years now. Another time, I started waking up in the morning, even on weekends, and I've kept that up for going on 12 years now.

But oftentimes the improvements don't stick. I intended to keep losing weight and to become thin and muscular and toned. Never happened (in part because I developed knee pain due to exercising). I sometimes go gangbusters with new diets, and they always involve giving up or reducing sweets, and eventually my fervor slackens.

Thus, even at the height of my self-improvement projects, when I'm swimming in energy and anticipation, there's always the fear, "Is this the moment that I give up? Is this the moment when it becomes too hard?"

But that's part of life. I used to log everything I wrote and everything I did. For four years I wrote every single day, even if it was only fifty words. For a year, I put up a blog post every single day. I used to think, this is it, I've found it--I just need to make sure that every single day I do the things I'm supposed to, and that'll be the ticket to a good life. But eventually it started to seem silly and counterproductive and I stopped. My writing productivity didn't go down, but my blogging productivity did (or maybe I should say 'newslettering productivity' since blogs are passe but newsletters are cool?) and the traffic on this site has never recovered.

The other day I was using the 'random book' feature on my Calibre content server (the same one that served up that Otto Skorzeny memoir I blogged about yesterday) and it served up Donald Keene's <a href="Amazon.com: Anthology of Japanese Literature: From the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century (UNESCO Collection of Representative Works: European): 9780802150585: Keene, Donald: Books">Anthology of Japanese Literature from earliest era to the mid-19th Century. I've read a fair amount of ancient and Heian (10th-11th century) Japanese literature and a fair amount of contemporary Japanese literature, but didn't know much about the period in between, so I spent some time browsing through the book. I love anthologies like this, just because they alert me to new possibilities. At the same time, I thought, 'Shouldn't I actually be reading this book, instead of just skimming it?" And the answer is...maybe? But on the other hand, all I really wanted to know about was the development of Japanese prose. I certainly learned a lot about the intervening eras. After the Heian era, prose tended to either be historical romances (like the Tale of Heike) or short, often fantastical, stories, like the Bamboo-Cutter's Tale. Then in the 17th and 18th century, we see a resurgence of things that are closer to Genji--more focused on day-to-day life and realistic concerns. It was pretty fascinating! Anyway, while reading the book, I came across a few extracts from a 14th century manual called Essays in Idleness. According to this fellow, once you're past forty, you might as well bite the dust:

Truly the beauty of life is its uncertainty. Of all living things, none lives so long as man. Consider how the ephemera awaits the fall of evening, and the summer cicada knows neither spring nor autumn. Even a year of life lived peacefully seems long and happy beyond compare; but for such as never weary of this world and are loath to die, a thousand years would pass away like the dream of a single night.

What shall it avail a man to drag out till he becomes decrepit and unsightly a life which some day needs must end? Long life brings many shames. At most before his fortieth year is full, it is seemly for a man to die.

After that age it is pitiful to see how, unashamed of his looks, he loves to thrust himself into the society of others and, cherishing his offspring in the evening of his days, craves to live on and on that he may watch them grow and prosper. So he continues, his heart set on nought but worldliness, and hardening to the pity of things.

Japanese literature is truly special. No other literature impresses us so forcefully with both the beauty and the transience of life. Other literatures expound on the vanity of earthly things and a few other literatures manage to celebrate earthly things, but virtually every work of Japanese literature contains beautiful descriptions and hints of great sadness.

Anyway, I read this passage and was like, wow, at thirty-seven I might as well already be dead! Not one hundred percent sure how I weigh that against my fervor for self-improvement, but I do find it beautiful somehow that at thirty-seven I know that all my plans will eventually fail, and that I'll experience sorrow and failure again, and that in a year or two years or five years I'll once more be looking for new productivity systems and new ways of occupying myself and minimizing distraction. It's not that everything is futile, it's just nothing is permanent. It's like my bedside table. I cleaned it a few months ago, and then it got dirty again, and yesterday as I was cleaning it, I thought, "Wow, I just have to keep doing this. Constantly, every day or every week. There is no avoiding it. There is no system that'll allow me to escape the necessity of just continually tidying up my bedside table."

Perhaps I should've learned that long before--thirty-seven does seem an advanced age to realize one needs to continually tidy up--but it's also possible that it's a lesson I've learned and forgotten many times already in my life. Perhaps if I looked back in my blog, I'd find myself writing a dozen or two dozen times, "I realized that I need to keep tidying my bedside table." The thought is horrifying--one wants to make progress, not to be trapped in continual cycles--but not wanting to be trapped in a cycle isn't enough to change the reality, which is that things grow and fade. Nor can one embrace the idea of renewal either, because it's precisely renewal only comes from our struggle against fading away. In some proximate way, one can work within cycles--for instance by refusing to maintain habits and positions that no longer serve--but ultimately we're doomed to struggle.