Category Archives: Links

What length a book?

In this essay, Ben Yagoda complains that some books are too long. Yes, this seems like a pretty arbitrary complaint (not unlike Grampa Simpson’s that there are too many states; please eliminate three).

He writes of one book’s length, “that’s not just excessive but rude, willfully ignoring the fact that the reader has other things to do besides reading this book,” and he also writes of another book “since about the halfway point, I’ve been reading on with the clenched jaw and grim middle-distance stare of someone who’s been dared to complete a long and tedious task and damned well is going to do so.” It seems fine to me if the man wants to dare himself to read a book, but then why complain about the book or the dare? And to say that a certain length of book is “rude”?

I’m not sure what kind of personally optimized experience he wants. (Maybe he doesn’t, either.) I get the sense that Mr. Yagoda is not the kind of person to walk away from a book. It’s a pretty empowering experience, by the way. Why force yourself (or anyone else) to read a book?

But I’m blogging this not just to point out the silliness of another person’s complaints, but to build upon his question of book length. He points out that:

since the market, as it’s been defined for a pretty long time, doesn’t have a place for novellas and 25,000-word nonfiction works, ideas that would work best at such length get artificially bulked up, like an offensive lineman on steroids. E-books are a promising receptacle for shorter texts, but the form has a ways to go before authors and readers alike are comfortable with it.

And that’s probably a valid point about marketability of the length of certain texts. But in the abstract, I would argue that books don’t necessarily need to have “the extraneous” cut out, as Yagoda advises, because what makes something extraneous? Does every book need to be a swift plot-driven fiction or thesis-driven nonfiction?

I would suggest that part of the value of any book is that it’s a chance to listen to the author’s voice, to spend time with the author’s consciousness, and so why not have some discursive, digressive parts? Comedian Bob Odenkirk has written a book that’s

a bunch of pieces that I had sitting on my desk because I was collecting them for a book one day down the road. … I thought that you could make a book where there doesn’t have to be a unified concept outside of cracking it open and reading one piece and getting a laugh. It doesn’t really matter what form it’s in.

Odenkirk, in this interview, also refers to books made of short pieces like Steve Martin’s “Cruel Shoes,” Woody Allen’s “Without Feathers,” and Peter Cook’s “Tragically I Was an Only Twin,” a book he says “has autobiographical sketches in it and other various things — literally transcriptions of comic bits that he improvised on the radio and stuff. I enjoyed picking it up and looking at any page and reading it.”

I’ve also been considering the format I might use to write a book. It would also be something made of distinct smaller pieces, rather than being something of narrative or thematic unity. I too like the idea of opening a book and reading just a section, a few pages. It’s not that I’m too busy to read a whole book; it’s more that a book would have to be pretty compelling, and I just haven’t found a book I’m that interested in committing to.

This will sound arrogant, but so be it: I feel I’m at a stage in my ongoing learning and thinking career where I’m not as likely to find answers from others as I am likely to find answers myself, answers that come out of my own writing. “Answers” might not be the right word. But I feel what I need to do now is spend my mental energy creating rather than reading.

And one of the things I enjoy thinking about is forms of writing — and the long-narrative form, and the extended argument-thesis form don’t feel compelling to me now. It’s easier to reject something than it is to replace it. But I would like to try different kinds of writing, different approaches, and these need to feel like they came out of my own process. Even if there are “answers,” ideas, others have already had that could help me, I feel like I need to find these answers on my own, organically from my process, as it were.

Links on writing, poetry

1. Word sounds and food tastes: Small, thin things get front vowels; creamy, heavy things get back vowels.

2. An article explaining how meter for Greeks wasn’t measured in stresses but in long-and-short vowels.

3. Writing may improve health.

4. Explaining rap to U.S. Supreme Court justices.

5. Jeff Tweedy writes mumble-lyrics before putting in real words. He says he doesn’t want to have the words get in the way of the melody.

6. Rhyming in sign language.

‘Game of Thrones’ Theme Stylings

Smooth Jazz:

And, using this music, the Saul Bass-style intro credits:

Traditional Jazz


Marching Band

(hat tip to Slate)

Academic writing is “over-equivocated”

Writer Rebecca Schuman makes an interesting point in a defense of her writing style:

Readers can sense hedging, equivocation and cowardice from 10 miles away, and they don’t like it. At the same time, those who wish to succeed in academe must compromise what they say in public (the recent Salaita affair is but the most extreme example of the kind of systemic restraint that academia demands). As a result, a lot of “public” writing by academics is self-censored, over-equivocated, bogged down in data analysis, and thus unreadably boring to a non-academic audience. But since I am no longer beholden to some imaginary search or tenure committee, I get to hold nothing back — and that is why I get to be at Slate. If you want anyone to read your op-eds on a mainstream platform, you must take a firm, blunt stance — one that might have to oversimplify a few things for brevity, and one that will bring its share of both support and vitriol.


‘Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex': Stephen King’s Advice

In a recent interview at The Atlantic, author Stephen King shares some more advice on writing beyond what he wrote in “On Writing.”

To the question, “You write, ‘One either absorbs the grammatical principles of one’s native language in conversation and in reading or one does not.’ If this is true, why teach grammar in school at all? Why bother to name the parts?” King answered:

When we name the parts, we take away the mystery and turn writing into a problem that can be solved. I used to tell them that if you could put together a model car or assemble a piece of furniture from directions, you could write a sentence. Reading is the key, though. A kid who grows up hearing “It don’t matter to me” can only learn doesn’t if he/she reads it over and over again.

King on teaching writing:

I tried to give assignments that would teach kids to be specific. I used to repeat “See, then say” half a dozen times a day. So I would often ask them to describe operations that they take for granted. Ask a girl to write a paragraph on how she braids her sister’s hair. Ask a boy to explain a sports rule. These are just basic starting points, where students learn to write on paper what they might tell a friend. It keeps it concrete. If you ask a kid to write on “My Favorite Movie,” you’re opening the door to subjectivity, and hence to a flood of clichés.

King on letting students pick their own books to read vs. steering them to the challenging texts:

You don’t want to leave them in despair, which is why it’s such a horrible idea to try teachingMoby-Dick or Dubliners to high school juniors. Even the bright ones lose heart. But it’s good to make them reach a little. They’ve got to see there are brighter literary worlds than Twilight. Reading good fiction is like making the jump from masturbation to sex.


Links: MOOCs aren’t education’s answer, teaching is hard

1. “The best educational technology we have is always our attention”: A theory why education is not going to “disrupt” education. In short: teaching’s a lot harder than any program can manage. Also by Paul Franz, this quote:

Thinking about software as the primary way of solving problems (in any field) forces us to frame problems in terms that software is capable of addressing. That’s especially dangerous in education because solving educational problems involves leveraging knowledge and expertise from pretty much every other social science (anthropology, economics, psychology, political science, etc), not to mention knowledge from content areas. Software might be good at categorizing and organizing knowledge, but it’s not so good at synthesizing and applying knowledge in the creative, and often highly contextualized and personalized, ways that educators and educational leaders have to employ every day.

2. An article I found via The Dish, is this one, which discusses why teachers have a tougher job than doctors, an interview with Elizabeth Green. She says:

With doctors, you just have one person that you’re working with, and they want to be there. With teachers, they have as many as 30 or more people they’re working with at one time, and some of them do not choose to be there.

Teachers have to be mind readers at the same time as they have to be incredibly interpersonally sophisticated. They have to be masters of emotional intelligence. And at the same they’re supposed to be teaching academic content. Even the most sophisticated practitioners that we can imagine — it’s still more complicated to be a teacher, I ended up thinking.

She also says that one reason classroom practice gets little attention comes from educational theorists:

The fathers of educational psychology, the first education school professors, were bored by classroom practice. Edward Thorndike, who set the tone for all future education researchers, said when somebody asked him what he would do in a particular real-life situation at a school, “Do? I’d resign!” I think that’s typical of a university system that focuses on disciplinary research — it’s the history of education, the psychology of education. It’s not education itself as a thing to study. That has meant that we train future teachers in everything but how to teach, pretty much.

She recommends that teachers be required to spend less time in their classrooms so they can learn and improve:

We don’t give teachers the space to do anything but work, work, work. They have no space to learn. Whereas in Japan or Finland there are 600 hours per year of time spent teaching, in the US, it’s 1,000 hours or more. So teachers have no time to think, no time to learn, no time to study the kids, no time to study the curriculum. They have no way of seeing anything that’s happening outside their own classroom.

They have no time to see each other teach. Other countries show that time is some of the most valuable time. When you get to have a common classroom experience to look at, then you get things like figuring out that “13 minus 9″ is the very best problem to teach subtraction with borrowing. That kind of learning doesn’t happen in the US.

3. From the New Yorker, an article titled “What College Can’t Do” begins by discussing reverence for work or even overwork:

To think about busyness in terms of modernity is to think about its deep roots. In part, busyness is a matter of economics: it has to do with bosses driving workers harder (or admissions committees asking more of applicants), and with the forces of meritocracy making life more competitive. But it also has a spiritual dimension: careers mean more to us because the traditional sources of meaning, like religion, mean less; increasingly, work is the field upon which we seek to prove our value.






Colleges aren’t monasteries. They can’t give their students spiritual sustenance; they can’t provide an escape from modernity. And they shouldn’t be faulted, or punished, for that.

Links: Philosophy, fiction, fairy tales, Bob Dylan and James Brown

1. On how to think about a text’s truth: In a philosophical discussion of Hinduism at The New York Times (which I found via The Dish), there is this quotation about how Hindu religious texts are regarded:

One explanation of this tolerance of difference is that religious texts are often not viewed as making truth claims, which might then easily contradict one another. Instead, they are seen as devices through which one achieves self transformation. Reading a religious text, taking it to heart, appreciating it, is a transformative experience, and in the transformed state one might well become aware that the claims of the text would, were they taken literally, be false. So religious texts are seen in Hinduism as “Trojan texts” (like the Trojan horse, but breaking through mental walls in disguise). Such texts enter the mind of the reader and help constitute the self.

The Hindu attitude to the Bible or the Quran is the same, meaning that the sorts of disagreements that arise from literalist readings of the texts tend not to arise.

2. On fairy tales (a discussion of Kate Bernheimer’s book How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales):

fairy tales are like rudimentary contracts. They are provisional fixes for the horrifying problem of reality: adulthood, time, and death (a set of truths so pure and terrible they can only live in myth). Fairy tales have terms: They will bring you to an uncanny, dreamlike place in which natural laws are waived. In return, you must accept wild nonsense logic, impenetrability, and—with no three-dimensionally human characters in fairy-tale land—a degree of solitude.

You cannot argue with a fairy tale.

3. On “close writing” fiction technique. I’m not necessarily agreeing with this writer’s position, but I found this article thought-provoking.

4. In this post about Bob Dylan at Vulture, I found a couple things interesting:

And, finally, a key component often overlooked: Dylan’s artistic process. On a fundamental level, he doesn’t trust mediation or planning. The story of his recording career is littered with tales of indecisive and failed sessions and haphazard successful ones, in both cases leaving frustrated producers and session people in their wake. You could say the approach served him well during his early years of inspiration and has hobbled him in his later decades of lesser work. Dylan doesn’t care. During the recording of Blood on the Tracks, which may be the best rock album ever made, one of the musicians present heard the singer being told how to do something correctly in the studio. Dylan’s reply: “Y’know, if I’d listened to everybody who told me how to do stuff, I might be somewhere by now.”


Given the chance, Dylan will give the audience his art, unadulterated, as he creates it, and nothing more. He believes it’s a corruption of his art to be directed by someone else’s sensibility. In its own weird way, isn’t this one sacred connection between artist and audience? It might be nicer if he did things differently. It might be more palatable, more commercially successful. (He might be somewhere by now.) This is what ties together his signal creations, his ongoing shows, and even the wretched albums of the ’80s and ’90s; what he does might be sublime and ineffable or yet also coarse and unsuccessful; it is what it is, defined by where it comes from, not what it should be.

5. David Remnick suggests a particular video clip of James Brown.

6. Why we put adjectives in the particular orders we tend to in English.

7. “Three Steps to Better Music Biopics