(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Writing

“The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born; now is the time of monsters”*…

Historian Adam Tooze‘s new book, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy, is released today. You can (and, I’d suggest, should) read excerpts from its introduction in The Guardian and The New York Times.

In his newsletter, he unpacks the fundamental historiographic challenge that he encountered in writing it, why that challenge matters… and why we must all face (and face up to) it:

I generally prefer a narrative mode that plunges you in to the middle of things, rather than beginning at the beginning. The in medias res approach is more engaging. It catches the reader’s attention from the start because they have to scramble to orientate themselves. It is also more transparent in its artifice. I prefer the deliberate and obvious break in the linear flow produced by a flashback – “now we interrupt the action to explain something you really need to know” – to the apparent simplicity and calm of “beginning at the beginning”, which in its own way begs all the same questions, but smuggles the answers into the smooth flow of a linear narrative.

As [critic Perry] Anderson suggested [here], this stylistic preference also reflects a certain understanding of politics and agency and their relationship to history, which might broadly be described as Keynesian left-liberalism. As he puts it, “a ‘situational and tactical’ approach to the subject in hand determines entry to” the subject matter “in medias res”. It mirrors my preoccupation with “pragmatic crisis management in the form of punctual adjustments without illusion of permanency”.

I side with those who see “in medias res”, not just as a stylistic choice and a mode of historical and political analysis, but as defining the human condition – apologies for the boldness of that claim. Being thrown into pre-given situations define us, whether though social structure, language, concepts, identities or chains of action and interaction, in which we are willy nilly enrolled and to which we ourselves contribute, thereby enrolling others as well.

Whatever thinking or writing we do, however we choose to couch it and whatever our explanatory ambition, we do it from the midst of things, not from above or beyond the fray. There are different ways of articulating that relationship – more remote or more immediate – but no way out of that situatedness.

We are thrown into situations. Most of the time they don’t come with instructions. If they do come with instructions we should probably not trust them. We have to perform enquiries to figure out how we got here, what our options are and where we might be headed. To do the work of figuring out our situation we might resort to the tools of social science, like statistics or economic concepts. Political theory may help. But history writing too is part of the effort at rendering our situations more intelligible.

For some colleagues, history is distinctive because it studies the distant past, or because it takes the archive as its source. For me, self-consciously inhabiting our situatedness in time is what differentiates historical enquiry and writing from other forms of social knowledge. History is the attempt to produce knowledge of the flux from within the flux. As Croce remarks: “All true history is contemporary history.”

The speed, intensity and generality of the COVID pandemic and the cognitive challenges it posed, gave this entanglement a new intensity. Even at the best of times, however, the problem is that being in medias res it is easier said than done. It is both inescapable and, at the same time, mysterious.

We are in medias res you say? In the middle of things? But which things? And how do those things relate to us and define us? Who or what are we in relation to these things? How do we chart the middle of this world? Who has the map? Who has the compass?…

@adam_tooze goes on to propose if not concrete answers to those questions, then a approach that can keep one honest. Eminently worth reading in full. History in the thick of it: “Writing in medias res.”

*  Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

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As we ponder perspective, we might spare a thought for Alan John Percivale (A. J. P.) Taylor; he died on this date in 1990. A historian, he wrote (albeit not overtly in media res) and taught briefly at Manchester Uinversity, then for most of his career at Oxford, focused largely on 19th- and 20th-century European diplomacy. But he gained a popular audience of millions via his journalism and broadcast lectures. His combination of academic rigor and popular appeal led the historian Richard Overy to describe him as “the Macaulay of our age.”

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 7, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Nothing so much assists learning as writing down what we wish to remember”*…

Lewis Carroll’s commonplace shows his musings on ciphers and detailed handwritten charts exploring labryinths. [source]

Your correspondent is away for the rest of this month; regular service will resume on or around September 1st. For the hiatus, a little something to occupy you…

As readers of this blog will have deduced, (Roughly) Daily is a kind of commonplace book…

Commonplace books (or commonplaces) are a way to compile knowledge, usually by writing information into books. They have been kept from antiquity, and were kept particularly during the Renaissance and in the nineteenth century. Such books are similar to scrapbooks filled with items of many kinds: sententiae, notes, proverbs, adages, aphorisms, maxims, quotes, letters, poems, tables of weights and measures, prayers, legal formulas, and recipes… Commonplaces are used by readers, writers, students, and scholars as an aid for remembering useful concepts or facts. Each one is unique to its creator’s particular interests but they almost always include passages found in other texts, sometimes accompanied by the compiler’s responses.

Commonplace book

As Steven Johnson points out, commonplace books have a storied history…

Scholars, amateur scientists, aspiring men of letters — just about anyone with intellectual ambition in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was likely to keep a commonplace book. In its most customary form, “commonplacing,” as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing. The great minds of the period — Milton, Bacon, Locke — were zealous believers in the memory-enhancing powers of the commonplace book. There is a distinct self-help quality to the early descriptions of commonplacing’s virtues: in the words of one advocate, maintaining the books enabled one to “lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life.”

The philosopher John Locke first began maintaining a commonplace book in 1652, during his first year at Oxford. Over the next decade he developed and refined an elaborate system for indexing the book’s content. Locke thought his method important enough that he appended it to a printing of his canonical work, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding

The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book

Perhaps because in these interconnected days almost anything seems re-retrievable at a click, not too many bother keeping commonplaces. That’s a shame. Your correspondent can testify that the habit– whether practiced in a book or digitally– is a powerful aid both to learning and to writing.

Happily, there are lots of sources of good advice for getting started, e.g., here, here (source of the image above), and here. There’s even a Masterclass.

* Marcus Tullius Cicero

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As we live and learn, we might recall that it was on this date in 1858 that (prodigious journaler and commonplace keeper) Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace published “On the tendency of species to form varieties; and on the perpetuation of varieties and species by natural selection” in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society. This was the first printed formal exposition of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Darwin had developed the essential elements of his theory by 1838 and set them on paper in 1844; however, he chose to keep his work on evolution unpublished for the time, instead concentrating his energies first on the preparation for publication of his geological work on the Beagle voyage , and then on an exhaustive eight-year study of the barnacle genus Cirripedia.

In 1856, at the urging of Charles Lyell, Darwin began writing a vast encyclopedic work on natural selection; however, it is possible that the extremely cautious Darwin might never have published his evolutionary theories during his lifetime had not Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist born in New Zealand, independently discovered the theory of natural selection. Wallace conceived the theory of natural selection during an attack of malarial fever in Ternate in the Mollucas, Indonesia (Febuary, 1858) and sent a manuscript summary to Darwin, who feared that his discovery would be pre-empted.

In the interest of justice Joseph Dalton Hooker and Charles Lyell suggested joint publication of Wallace’s paper prefaced by a section of a manuscript of a work on species written by Darwin in 1844, when it was read by Hooker, plus an abstract of a letter by Darwin to Asa Gray, dated 1857, to show that Darwin’s views on the subject had not changed between 1844 and 1857. The papers by Darwin and Wallace were read by Lyell before the Linnean Society on July 1, 1858 and published on August 20.

Darwin & Wallace Issue the First Printed Exposition of the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection

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“How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”*…

Henriette Browne, A Girl Writing; The Pet Goldfinch, ca. 1874

Montaigne would be amused…

The first quarter of the twenty-first century has been an uneasy time of rupture and anxiety, filled with historic challenges and opportunities. In that close to twenty-five-year span, the United States witnessed the ominous opening shot of September 11, followed by the seemingly unending Afghanistan and Iraq wars, the effort to control HIV/AIDS, the 2008 recession, the election of the first African American president, the legalization of same-sex marriage, the contentious reign of Donald Trump, the stepped-up restriction of immigrants, the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and the coronavirus pandemic, just to name a few major events. Intriguingly, the essay has blossomed during this time, in what many would deem an exceptionally good period for literary nonfiction—if not a golden one, then at least a silver: I think we can agree that there has been a remarkable outpouring of new and older voices responding to this perplexing moment in a form uniquely amenable to the processing of uncertainty.

When the century began, essays were considered box office poison; editors would sometimes disguise collections of the stuff by packaging them as theme-driven memoirs. All that has changed: a generation of younger readers has embraced the essay form and made their favorite authors into best sellers. We could speculate on the reasons for this growing popularity—the hunger for humane, authentic voices trying to get at least a partial grip on the truth in the face of so much political mendacity and information overload; the convenient, bite-size nature of essays that require no excessive time commitment; the rise of identity politics and its promotion of eloquent spokespersons. Rather than trying to figure out why it’s happening, what’s important is to chart the high points of this resurgence, and to account for the range of styles, subgenres, experimental approaches, and moral positions that characterize the contemporary American essay…

Read “The Silver Age of Essays,” an excerpt from Phillip Lopate‘s introduction to a new collection, The Contemporary American Essay; via @parisreview.

* E. M. Forster

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As we praise perceptive prose, we might recall that it was on this date in 1854 that Ticknor & Fields published transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s reflection on simple living in natural surroundings, Walden; or, Life in the Woods... essentially a long essay.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 9, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Writers use everything. We can’t help it. Whatever touches us touches our writing.”*…

How a teenager anxious to launch a sci-fi zine helped birth one of Octavia Butler’s most important essays…

Science fiction writer Octavia Estelle Butler, who passed away 15 years ago, would have celebrated her 74th birthday on June 22 of this year. She was a prolific author of 15 novels and the first science fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant.” I knew Octavia when I was a teenager. Although my behavior with her was appalling at times, the result of our brief interaction turned out to be more meaningful and enduring than I could have imagined…

A wonderful story about a wonderful writer: “Octavia Butler and the Pimply, Pompous Publisher.”

* Octavia Butler

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As we are grateful that the Butler did it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1954 that J. R. R. Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Ring, a sequel to The Hobbit (published 17 years earlier) and the first volume in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 29, 2021 at 1:00 am

“Anonymity is the fame of the future”*…

So… late last spring, a strange, beguiling novel began arriving, in installments, in the mail, addressed to writer Adam Dalva at his parents’ apartment. Who had written it?…

It arrived at the height of the pandemic, in a brown envelope with no return address and too many stamps, none of which had been marked by the post office. It was addressed to me at my parents’ New York City apartment, where I haven’t lived in more than a decade. My mother used the envelope as a notepad for a few weeks, then handed it off to me in July; it was the first time I’d seen her after months of quarantine. Inside the envelope was a small, stapled book—a pamphlet, really—titled “Foodie or The Capitalist Monsoon that is Mississippi,” by a writer named Stokes Prickett. On the cover, there was a photograph of a burrito truck and a notice that read “Advance Promotional Copy: Do Not Read.” The book began with a Cide Hamete Benengeli-style introduction attributed to a Professor Sherbert Taylor. Then a fifty-five-page bildungsroman written in short sections with boldface titles. The prose reminded me a bit of Richard Brautigan.

Because I write book reviews, dozens of unsolicited books are sent to my house every month. Many of them, I confess, barely catch my attention before they’re added to a stack on the floor. But I sat down and read this one all the way through. The narrator of “Foodie” is Rusty, who thinks back on his days in high school, when he worked as a thumbtack-maker’s apprentice, then in a floor-mat factory. Rusty meets another kid from school, an idealist called Foodie whose real name is Gourmand, and whom Rusty describes as “a tetherball champ, a king of the taco stands,” in a town “at the edge of the 8-track suburbs.” Foodie, Rusty says, “was the kindest werewolf on the warfront, and I was his hairdresser.” They start spending time with a hulking, ruthless classmate named Dale, who is “right-handed and immoral as parchment,” and fated to die young because he has a white-collar job that causes him to move through time more quickly than his friends do. After Dale’s death, Foodie and Rusty part ways.

The book was good. But who was Stokes Prickett, and how did this person get my parents’ address?…

A most marvelous mystery, solved by @adalva: “On the Trail of a Mysterious, Pseudonymous Author.”

John Boyle O’Reilly

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As we get to the bottom of it, we might recall that it was on this date in 1901 that William Sydney Porter was released (on good behavior) after serving three years in the Ohio Penitentiary for bank fraud and embezzlement; a licensed pharmacist, he had worked in the prison’s infirmary.  But on his release, he turned to what had been a pastime, writing.  Over the next several years he wrote 381 short stories under the pen name by which we know him, “O. Henry,” including a story a week for over a year for the New York World Sunday Magazine.

His wit, characterization, and plot twists– as evidenced in stories like “The Gift of the Magi” and “The Ransom of Red Chief”– were adored by his readers but often panned by critics… though academic opinion has since come around: O. Henry is now considered by many to be America’s answer to Guy de Maupassant.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 24, 2021 at 1:00 am

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