Favorite books from 2011

I read many books this year. They served as solace when I was feeling blue. Here are my top ten, in no order:

The Submission, Amy Waldman

Amy Waldman, author of "The Submission" (Peter M. Van Hatten)

A jury selects an anonymous winner for a 9/11 memorial competition. It turns out that the winner’s name is Mohammed Khan. In the ensuing drama, you won’t forget for a moment that Waldman is a former NYT reporter who has honed the craft of writing on a daily basis.

Naming Nature, Carol Kaesuk Yoon
You can name the make, model, and year of every car you see on the road. But you can’t tell a sparrow from a swallow. Kaesuk deconstructs the reasons why.

Reading in the Brain, Stanislas Dehaene
Scientific and profound at the same time, Dehaene takes the time to describe the cognitive act of reading from the ground up, skipping no detail and assuming nothing.

 Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
I stalled on page 200 until my book club shamed me into finishing. I will never regret it. You’ve got to be obsessed with novels and narrative to love this book, but if that’s you — get thee to the bookstore.

The Emperor of All Maladies, Siddartha Mukherjee
A book that brings you back to the crucial moments before scientific breakthroughs occur, highlighting the experimental and hapharzard nature of progress.

The Tiger’s Wife, Téa Obreht
A thinly-veiled Yugoslavia serves as the setting for a highly unusual book that actually succeeds in taking a tiger’s point of view.

A Natural History of Innovation, Steven Johnson
Utterly convincing because his range is so vast and his synthesis so daring. Johnson demonstrates how the same principles that give rise to innovation among molecules and ecosystems also give rise to innovation among people.

The Mind’s Eye, Oliver Sacks
A comprehensive portrait of what it means to see, including many revealing tidbits about Sacks himself.

Blink, Malcolm Gladwell
Fine, I drank the kool-aid. But you know what? I make better decisions now, and I make them faster.

Portraits of the Mind, Carl Schoonover
Visually stunning, but don’t forget to read the excellent text. The way we think about the mind has been highly influenced, and occasionally quite limited, by the specific techniques that we have to visualize its inner structures.

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Tell me why to finish that novel

(Second in the series, How to read literature like a thirsty linguist).
At my old book club in California, we did alright for ourselves. We met once a month. We didn’t gossip. We actually discussed characters and plots. But we cheated a tiny bit. We let ourselves talk even if we hadn’t finished the book. The rule: If you had read the first 100 pages, you had full discussion privileges.

At my new book club in Massachusetts, this would not stand. We meet once a month. But during the interim, most of us read the assigned book plus two or three more books to boot. 576 pages of Jonathan Franzen? Kid’s stuff.

Actually, though, the California club was pretty good. We had stimulating conversations that I still recall fondly, five years later. This raises a question. Can you really appreciate a book if you read only part of it?

Obviously, for the Massachusetts club, the question is moot. (Yes, we need more hobbies). But everyone else — that is, people who love books and but are also maniacally busy — would probably be interested to know the answer.

Elif Batuman is an essayist who writes frequently about Turkish culture. When a journalist asked Batuman what she thinks of her famous compatriot, Orhan Pamuk, the reply got published as a newspaper heading: “I WAS UNABLE TO FINISH PAMUK.”

Copyright Iletisim Publishing. From orhanpamuk.net

Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006. On some level, his books must be good. Indeed, Batuman pays him a nice tribute in a recent New Yorker article. She’s ostensibly writing about a Turkish ornithologist from Kars, a city just over the border from Armenia. But she mostly quotes from Pamuk’s Snow (2004), a novel that painstakingly and evocatively describes this forgotten city.

But wait. Did Batuman read Snow? She said she couldn’t finish Pamuk. Maybe she cheated a little. Maybe she read the first 100 pages, then gave herself full discussion privileges.

Time for a confession. I read only the first 100 pages of Snow. And I loved it! I can still picture the dark snowy streets of Kars in my mind. So why didn’t I finish it?

Linguists use the concept of “timing units” to capture the fact that certain sounds are longer than others. For example, if you say “Jay-Z” with a lot of emphasis, the Z will be longer than usual. We represent this fact by adding an extra timing unit to the Z, but it’s still a Z. It’s like a yoga pose. You can hold it for a few extra seconds, but it’s still a downward dog.

I think some novels use timing units. They set up a basic plot and a few characters. But as you turn the pages, the book gets longer while plot and characters remain the same. Instead of moving along, the book just holds the yoga pose a little longer.

There’s no question that books like this are hard to read. They lack plot twists. They lack character development. Snow felt like this to me. I enjoyed it what I got, but I eventually put it down, thinking that Pamuk’s extra timing units probably wouldn’t add anything new.

So if the novel comes to a standstill, we can properly appreciate it after 100 pages. Right? Actually, I am not so sure. Some timing units are superfluous. You can press an elevator button and hold it for several seconds, but that won’t have any effect on the elevator. And a few novels are like this, too. You can keep reading, but that won’t have any affect on the plot.

But most timing units exist for a reason. With emphasis, Jay-Z takes on a different tone (“That’s not Kanye West, you moron, that’s Jay-Z”). With a few extra seconds, the yoga pose feels different and your body’s relaxation deepens. I’m willing to argue that some novels are like this, too. Their long duration is the whole point.

Museum of Innocence (2009) works like this. Now I get full discussion privileges because, in this case, I WAS ABLE TO FINISH PAMUK. The summary is that a wealthy young guy named Kemal falls in love with a shop-girl named Füsun, starts going to her family’s modest apartment for dinner every night, and steals stuff from them.

Orhan Pamuk, possibly in his museum (from orhanpamuk.net)

Not exactly riveting. But the summary misses the point. Kemal continues this pattern for eight whole years. Füsun has married someone else, so his love for the lower-class shop-girl goes unrequited. Instead of building a life with her, he eats dinner and watches television with her family. The years plod on. Kemal details each moment of his suffering in excruciating detail, using the stolen stuff to build a “museum” that bears witness to his experiences.

By the end of the book, by the time the 531st page has been completed, the reader feels the weight of that lost time. It’s a sunken feeling in the heart. You could get the same plot in 100 pages: the meeting, the fateful marriage, the ensuing dinners. But you could not get that feeling. The timing units, modest but devastating, have done their work.

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How to Read Literature Like a Thirsty Linguist (I)

I wanted to spice things up at book club. So I picked up (er, downloaded) a copy of How to Read Literature Like a Professor (2003). In it, Thomas C. Foster, a professor at the University of Michigan, Flint, gives lots of easy-to-follow advice on interpreting stories. If a character gets submerged in water, that means baptism. If she eats a meal, that means communion. If he is 33, celibate, and wounded on the hands and feet, that means Christ. And if you cannot interpret your reading in light of Christianity, you can always turn to Shakespeare, Greek mythology, or even fairy tales.


I don’t exactly disagree with Foster. His advice is surely not wrong. But nor does it seem entirely right. By the end of the book, I knew one thing. I don’t read literature like a professor.

I thought about writing a rejoinder. How to Read Literature Like a Book Club Member would offer updated advice for these modern times. If a character lives in New York, that means ethnic identity, usually Jewishness. If she gazes at the empty sky over lower Manhattan, that means 9/11. If he goes to California, that means renewal and venture capital. And if you cannot interpret your reading in light of east and west, you can always turn to that exotic wasteland of unexpressed emotions and bad food that lies in the middle of the country.

But in truth, that didn’t feel right, either. Whether they come from professors or mere mortals, equations like “X means Y” don’t leave enough room for readers to actively interpret anything. To be fair to Foster, he repeatedly tells his readers that they must formulate their own arguments. But we are unlikely to come up with anything truly original when we must drag so much baggage along with us.

After thinking about it more, I decided that the very idea of meaning is overrated. I’m putting myself out on a limb here, but consider a novel like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad (2010). It has thirteen chapters. They jump from roughly 2007, to 2006, 1979, 1973, 2005, 1997, 2002, 2007, 1998, 1992, 1989, and finally to the 2020’s in California and the 2020’s in New York City.

Random House

That’s a pretty complicated set-up. To boot, I had to calculate those dates myself, using hints from the text. So while the novel undoubtedly conveys meaning, you’d lose the whole point if you tried to interpret it using “X means Y” equations. In Goon Squad, the reader’s most important task is to grapple with its structure.

If you think about it, many novels offer similar challenges. Some novels sprawl, like Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone (2009), which encompasses everything from genital mutilation to liver transplants to Ethiopian politics. Some stay confined, like Emma Donoghue’s Room (2010), which portrays the mental world of a five-year-old boy. Some alternate among the voices of different characters, like Toni Morrison’s A Mercy (2008), where slaves and slaveholders alike narrate the story. And — now we’re really having fun — some offer a novel-within-a-novel, like Ian MacEwan’s Atonement (2001), whose text was authored by Briony, the main character, who admits that she strays from reality in telling her tale.

To enjoy these novels is to enjoy their structure. When we read them, we expand, contract, reorient, and recombine every element in the story. And when we do that, we cannot help but create original interpretations of our own, which is a lot of fun. So it dawned on me. I don’t read literature like a professor. But I do read it like a linguist. Or, since I admittedly enjoy book club more than Journal of Linguistics, let’s say I read it like a thirsty linguist.

Mouton de Gruyter

What does that even mean? Linguists obsess first with the structure of language, and only secondarily with the meaning. When Noam Chomsky launched the modern study of linguistics with his book Syntactic Structures (1957), he set out to to develop a theory of linguistic structure that didn’t make reference to any one language in particular. “[W]e shall suggest,” he wrote, “that this purely formal investigation of the structure of language has interesting implications for semantic studies.”

It sounds awfully abstract. I’ll stay neutral with regard to whether Chomsky and his program succeeded in the realm of grammars. But in the realm of literature, I’m staying out on my limb. Putting structure first can be a remarkably enjoyable way to read, and it leads us to deeper meanings would otherwise be possible. So I figured out my rejoinder. Welcome. You just finished the part one of How to Read Literature Like a Thirsty Linguist.

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Who owns birdness?

I grew up in the city. As far as animals go, I prefer not to get too close. Still, I remember the thrill of spotting a flock of parrots perched in a tree on the south side of Chicago. Originally from Argentina, these birds somehow thrived, paradoxically enough, in the neighborhood surrounding the Museum of Science and Industry. Their garish green feathers formed a beautiful contrast with the gray, gritty buildings. It was a visceral experience.

But birdness isn’t an easy issue these days. Consider Archaeopteryx. Until quite recently, scientists gave it the status of earliest known bird. Crucially, it had feathers. According to the fossil record, it also had a wishbone, a hand with three fingers, and long arms. These features distinguished the 150-million-year-old creature from dinosaurs, and qualified it for birdness.

But now scientists in China have reported the discovery of another bird-like fossil, Xiaotingia zhengi. And they are using it to claim that Archaeopteryx isn’t actually a bird at all. Instead, they argue in the July 28 issue of Nature, Archaeopteryx belongs to a group of nonavian feathered dinosaurs, alongside Xiaotingia zhengi and another dinosaur, Anchiornis.

Archaeopteryx fossil, first discovered in Germany 150 years ago.

It’s an interesting debate, particularly because most people probably consider “nonavian feathered” an oxymoron. Feathers mean birdness (right?). But in constructing a new taxonomy, scientists are using a wider variety of details than most ordinary people would. Jaws, for example. Fossil records show that both Archaeopteryx and Xiaotingia zhengi have lightly built jaws, which contrast with the heavier jaws of the first uncontroversial birds, and imply different feeding habits.

Writer Carol Kaesuk Yoon has argued that modern scientific approaches to taxonomy — not just the consideration of details like jaws, but also DNA sequencing and the re-definition of “species” in strictly evolutionary terms — have alienated ordinary people from nature. We no longer trust the names we give to animals and plants, she argues, because science stands too ready to prove them incorrect. As a result, we have distanced ourselves from the natural world that surrounds us.

In Naming Nature: The Clash Between Instinct and Science (2009), Yoon shows that all humans have a basic instinct to name nature. Every culture uses names — but suprisingly, their naming systems do not exhibit as much variety as one might expect, suggesting that we are born with a sort of innate taxonomy. Furthermore, the capacity to name living things can be selectively impaired as the result of stroke, suggesting that one area of the human brain is specialized for naming nature. Yoon urges readers to get re-claim their innate taxonomies from the vagaries of science, and to experience a closer relationship with the natural world.

I like Yoon’s argument, partly because she uses some of the same evidence that linguists use when we try to show that all humans share certain language abilities (universal tendencies across cultures, selective impairment of brain function). And I must be her target audience, because I have a firmer grip on the taxonomy of commercial breakfast cereals than on the various species of birds.

Published by W. W. Norton & Co.

But Yoon’s argument also strikes an anti-intellectual note. Shouldn’t we be trying to challenge our instincts, rather than blindly trusting them? And if we find do find evidence that challenges our instincts, shouldn’t we engage with it, rather than retreat? Anyone can read about Archaeopteryx, examine the fossil diagrams, and decide for themselves whether the lightly-built jaws trump the feathers. In fact, a good debate offers the perfect way to draw people further into the natural world, not away from it.

For the past fifteen years, the famous New York deli Zabar’s has apparently been selling “Lobster Salad” that contained no lobster. The ingredients: wild freshwater crawfish, mayonnaise, celery, salt and sugar. The Maine Lobster Council heard about this and protested. But Zabar’s fought back. “If you go to Wikipedia, you will find that crawfish in many parts of the country is referred to as lobster,” co-owner Saul Zabar told The New York Times. So what is a lobster? The answer is up for debate, even among non-scientists.

I’m also not sure that I buy Yoon’s argument about the relationship between experiencing the natural world and naming it. Surely we can do one without the other.

I live in the country now. Like it or not, animals are in my face. My favorite bike trail borders a wildlife sanctuary established by the Massachusetts Audobon Society. On most days I see the usual crew of robins, etcetera. But once in a great while, I see a more unusual bird. Its gray body forms a sober backdrop for the exuberant splashes of yellow on its wings. I could look it up in a birding book, but the truth is that I don’t want to name it. Its presence in my life is fleeting, ephemeral, and beautiful. Maybe its namelessness is part of that beauty.

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Interview with Anna North, author of America Pacifica

“The trouble started when the woman with the shaking hands came to the apartment,” begins Anna North’s new novel, America Pacifica. Darcy, who answers the door, is an eighteen-year-old struggling to survive with her mother, Sarah, on a remote Pacific island. Thousands of miles away, the continental U.S. has entered a new ice age and become uninhabitable. When Sarah mysteriously disappears, Darcy’s quest to find her brings her face-to-face with bitter truths about the previous generation’s hasty escape from the mainland, and their ideological battles about human response to climate change. The following is an edited version of a conversation with author Anna North, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop and an editor at Jezebel.com.

In your novel America Pacifica, the continental United States has entered a new ice age and become uninhabitable. Of the possible disasters that could have beset the country, why did you chose cold weather?

A couple of reasons. One is that I was interested in environmental degradation and climate change, but people already talk a fair amount about global warming. So I was interested in the flip side. I also had been having dreams about disaster scenarios involving the weather. I had a dream in which Los Angeles flooded and I was canoeing around it, canoeing around the base of the library tower. That was an inspiration for the climate change aspect, but also for the sea-faring parts that happen later in the book.

I wanted the opportunity to write about cold: both the cold itself and different qualities of cold, and also the side effects of the world being really cold — things like people not being able to get enough nutrients, not being able to grow crops or livestock, not being able to get vitamin D from the sun, not being able to go outside. All these things were really fascinating to me.

I grew up in Los Angeles and I wrote a lot of the book in Iowa City, where it was really, really cold. I was fascinated with how difficult that made things. I remember realizing that you couldn’t have an outdoor ATM in Iowa City. For a lot of the year, you can’t take a glove off to punch numbers. It will hurt too much. So all of the ATMs are indoors. From that, I got excited about snow and ice.

Do you think that people are more receptive to a story about climate change precisely because you chose cold instead of hot?

In some ways extreme cold feels more frightening than extreme heat, although of course extreme heat can also kill you. It’s possible that the ways in which extreme cold could disastrously affect societies and people are easier to visualize. It’s hard to visualize people not having enough air conditioning, or crops wilting in the field. These things are really bad, but maybe not as easy to picture as everything getting frozen over, with people’s teeth chattering and their children growing up with rickets and things like that.

In the novel, refugees from the continental U.S. flee to an island in the Pacific in order to survive, where they set up a new society that mimics, in many ways, the life they left behind. What constraints does an island setting place on the story?

There are a lot of material constraints. An obvious one is space. Certain types of agriculture are not really possible, particularly livestock cultivation. They have some cows, but I imagine them having one tiny stockyard, and maybe a couple of pigs and some chickens. But it’s not something they can do on a large scale, which is true to an extent in island nations in the real world. They rely a lot more on fishery than on livestock, depending on how small they are. I talk a lot about various materials that they are able to make from seaweed or from ocean bacteria, things like that.

But I also thought a lot about the constraints imposed by what they could bring over from the mainland. I thought a lot about metal. I pictured this as a volcanic island. If it’s a volcanic island, there’s not going to be a ton of mining that you can do. So all of their metal would have to come from the mainland and they would have to ship it over. There’s some mention in the book of stripping down old ships for scrap metal. I imagine them shipping over some cars and larger machinery. But certain metal-intensive things are just not available, nor are certain things that call for specialized metal. One thing they don’t have at all on the island is cameras or film, because that requires specialized metals that you wouldn’t be able to find or ship across in significant amounts.

They don’t have the internet or phone service. I imagine a lot of satellites being down in the wake of this huge environmental disaster and social breakdown. Those are also non-essential uses for metal, less essential than things like electricity, which is already a little bit scarce on the island; and plumbing, which is already not so great. A lot of the things that we take for granted would be super-scarce over there.

Tell me more about the flyers that people on the island use to communicate.

This is something I thought about: how does the news happen in a society without the internet? Obviously, we used to have newspapers, we still do. But I thought of a more general way of disseminating information of various kinds. So there are news flyers, but there are also porno flyers, and comic ones. I imagine there being political ones, too, that might have to be mimeographed underground.

I mention a Pacifica Flyers building at one point in the book. I imagine the flyers being centrally produced on one relatively small printing press that’s printing on Seafiber. I thought of these as a really low-tech way for people to find out what’s going on.

In the modern world, we have many forms of communication that are tailored to particular audiences. You can get only the news that interests you. The flyers in America Pacifica are so different. They are blasting the same news off to everybody.

There are a couple of media on the island like that. Another is street shows. There are street shows in various developing countries, and it can be a form of social protest. The advantage of doing social protest in that form is that you can scatter really quickly — as opposed to printing something out which can be held against you as evidence. If the cops show up, suddenly you’re not doing a show anymore.

Anna North

One thing I thought about a lot, that I didn’t end up using, was radio. Radio is still quite important in a lot of places where there is no reliable internet or cell phone access. For example, there was talk a few years ago about how to more effectively use South African regional radio shows to transmit HIV prevention messages. I ended up not using radio in the book, but I did think a lot about the kinds of media people use when they are afraid of their government, and the alternative media that people use when regular media aren’t available.

Factories on the island use a special process to convert ocean bacteria into solvent, which powers the buses that serve the island’s different neighborhoods but also gets used as a street drug. What role does solvent play in the story, and how is it different from the role that petroleum plays in actual U.S. society?

It’s similar in a couple of ways. One is that it’s really destructive to the environment. Tyson, the founder of the island, thought up this technology as a way of preserving a mainland-ish way of life, which is his number-one priority as a leader.

But of course, it also produces a mainland-ish form of pollution. In this case, the solvent doesn’t pollute the air, it destroys the ocean. There are scenes where solvent is eating away at various things on the coastline, and eating away at the coastline itself, causing bits of the coastline to fall into the water, and major cave-ins. There’s a sense that the entire island may be devoured by its own corrosive by-products. So that’s an obvious parallel.

On the other hand, people don’t use crude oil as a drug. But people do huff gasoline. I’ve read about kids huffing gasoline because it’s an appetite suppressant. For a little while, you won’t be hungry.

The island is structured around solvent power. Solvent is part of the reason why there are these really intense class divisions on the island. And so the fact that it becomes a drug for people, primarily used by people who are working-class or not working at all, is connected in some ways to the fact that it’s also destroying the island more explicitly.

It’s also a case of resource scarcity. I was trying to imagine: what kind of drugs could you even cultivate on this island? You wouldn’t be able to cultivate anything that requires you to keep secret, large farmland. There’s no way to keep a big secret in terms of land area.

Darcy, the novel’s protagonist, is a high-school drop-out who works in the kitchen of a nursing home. One day, her mother Sarah goes to work and doesn’t return. Darcy’s dogged search for her mother eventually gets her tangled up with the highest levels of power and politics on the island, and brings her face-to-face with Tyson, its founder and supposed leader. Why did you use an uneducated, politically apathetic character to tell this story?

A couple of reasons. One is that I wanted her to be able to find out about the most corrupt parts of Tyson’s government along with the reader. I didn’t want her to know a lot of insider information beforehand. So her status as an outsider — she’s not part of any radical group, and she’s not highly educated — she wouldn’t know a lot of these things.

And then I was really interested in Darcy’s journey toward political awareness, toward an awareness of what are the best ways to run this island, what are some the ways that power corrupts, what are some of the problems that the islanders confronted. I was interested in tracking that and having that occur gradually. I didn’t necessarily want her to be passionate about things outside herself at the beginning because I wanted her to more slowly come to a passionate interest in these issues, more slowly come to a larger-scale heroism. Whereas at the very beginning, she’s mostly just interested in her own and her mother’s survival.

Sometimes readers get frustrated with a book because they can’t identify with a character. You’ve offered a counterpoint to that. Characters aren’t necessarily in a novel so that readers will like them, or identify with them. Characters sometimes serve a bigger purpose in the story.

For realism’s sake, I was interested in having Darcy be right on the edge of adulthood. She’s already in a pretty difficult place when the book begins. Her mother’s still there, but they don’t have any money and they have a lot of problems. Darcy’s quite young. Putting myself in her shoes, her priorities would be getting through the day and paying the rent. I wanted to acknowledge that. I wanted to acknowledge that yes, she has a lot of day-to-day concerns to deal with.

It’s only when Darcy is forced to deal with larger concerns that she does so, which frankly I think is true for most people, no matter what their status is on the social ladder. Maybe the more leisure time you have, the more ability you have to learn about some things outside yourself. But I still think we see a lot of apathy everywhere and in everyone until someone is forced to pay attention.

Darcy eventually pieces together her mother’s story using information she gets from patients in the nursing home. The story isn’t pretty: her mother has been kidnapped by government agents because they suspect she’s involved in revolutionary activities against Tyson. What did this setting — the nursing home — allow Darcy to accomplish that might not have otherwise been possible?

I’ll come at that by talking about what it allowed me to accomplish as an author. It allowed me to introduce characters who had been at the island from the very beginning. I thought of the nursing home setting really early on. I didn’t even fully think about how I could use it, because I was just interested in having Darcy talk to people who were old. The differences between people who are young on the island and people who are old on the island would be really striking. I thought it would be interesting to contrast people who had only known the island with people who had known the mainland, and I was interested in the idea of nostalgia. What kind of things people would miss? Would they grow to miss the winter at all?

It turned out that these characters also worked well as ways for Darcy to find out what happened on the mainland, and to find out what happened at the beginning of the island. I liked having her find out from people who had been there, as opposed to finding it out from documents or third-hand. I liked the immediacy of her being able to ask Yuka, one of the nursing home residents. Yuka, it turns out, has this visceral story that Darcy is quite connected to. I found this a more exciting way to give that story, rather than having Darcy learn it in a documentary way.

This is cliché to say, but you can learn a lot about the past from people who were alive during it. At a nursing home, there’s an air of people who have been forgotten by society, but who are at the same time carrying the image of what society used to be like. That’s an interesting contrast.

Certain aspects of your novel recall the European settlement of the New World — for instance, the islanders re-create the social structures and conveniences of the Old World in a “wilderness” setting. One piece is missing: apparently, there are no native inhabitants of the island; that is, no equivalent to the Native American Indians.

But we do learn about Daniel, a character who had argued vehemently that people should remain on the U.S. mainland and learn to adapt themselves to the new climate realities, rather than trying to re-create old customs in a hot island setting. Can you comment on Daniel and the role he plays in the story?

I thought a lot about whether the island should have an indigenous population or not. I even wrote some chapters with an indigenous population. I felt like it made the novel too politically complex. So I ended up making the decision that the island had not had prior inhabitants.

But in terms of Daniel, I saw him as someone who recognized that contemporary systems of society were pretty flawed. He recognized that the climate change they faced might have been brought about by petroleum use. To simply create another society based on a similarly dangerous form of energy might not be a great a idea. Daniel believed that when things change, you should change also, rather than trying to force the present into the past. I think of him as someone who feels like humans have a responsibility to adapt to their environment — and as someone who is profoundly anti-nostalgic.

Daniel’s world-view is something positive, but it comes with costs. If you were to follow his ideas, nobody is ever going to eat a hamburger anymore. Nobody is going to eat an apple anymore. And probably everybody is going to be cold. A lot of the things that Yuka says about Daniel’s worldview are true: people may die and there may be a lot of vitamin deficiencies before people start to work things out. The upshot is that his society will be more equal and better adapted to its surroundings than Tyson’s is, but it’s not like there’s no trade-off.

Daniel never makes an actual appearance in the book. Why do keep him offstage?

I don’t have him appear for a lot of reasons. I think in every case where I had a big, legendary figure in the book, I shied away from giving that person a large role onstage. Some of that, I have yet to psychoanalyze about myself as a writer.

I was really interested in seeing Darcy moving into a role where she would one day become legendary. For that reason, I wanted to keep the legends of the previous generation a little bit at arm’s length, so that I could give her space to fill that role.

Toward the end of America Pacifica, we see how the legend of Darcy gets repeated, and quickly distorted. This implicitly raises questions about the truth of some of the legends surrounding Tyson and Daniel.

It does. I do end up addressing a lot of the things around Tyson pretty directly. But in terms of Daniel, some things seeemed like they would be distracting to work out on the page. Things like: What is Daniel like as a person? Is he nice? Is he mean? Is he going to be disappointing? These were things that I wanted Darcy to have to wait to find out. And I wasn’t sure that I wanted to let the reader find out.

I talk about this when I’m teaching. If you’re making a horror movie, you shouldn’t show your viewers the alien or the monster until the last possible second, if you even show it at all. Whatever you show them is going to be less scary than what they had in their minds. I think that’s also true with characters like Daniel who are good — it’s always going to be less than what readers think. Any time you show this person, you have to deal with these dashed expectations.

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Kay Rosen’s linguisticky art

Does text have a proper place in serious art? In Kay Rosen’s work, that question becomes moot because the text is the art. In these small pieces on display at the Art Institute of Chicago, juxtapositions of words and letters reveal some hidden corners of language. Want an argument for spelling reform? You’ll get nothing more concise or immediate than Rosen’s “HUG HUGH UGH” (way better than ghoti for “fish”).  Want to put your finger on how North American English differs from British English? You’ll get one short and sweet answer in “ODD ODD OTTO” (the geeky term for what’s going on here is flapping). According to the text of the exhibit, Rosen trained formally in linguistics, but later devoted herself to visual art. “She realized that what interested her most about language was not the formal rules and applications, but the unconventional, unauthorized events that most often go unnoticed.”

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Book review: The Emperor of All Maladies

Why read a 571-page book about cancer? Two reasons. First, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner, 2010) takes the reader back in scientific time, in a way that’s actually convincing. With well-chosen words, author Siddhartha Mukherjee describes the practical and intellectual problems facing cancer researchers who did not yet possess the concept of, say, abnormal cell growth. Second, Mukherjee provides excellent examples of the creativity that these researchers used to solve such problems, and shows how they drew ideas from diverse corners of the known world, including dyes, weapons, and bacteria. Okay, make that three reasons. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Mukherjee depicts how a decidedly emergent process – in which we cannot point to a single pivotal discovery about cancer, only to a series of smaller, sometimes disparate findings – can nevertheless yield tangible and important results.

In 1964, the U.S. government issued a report which stated, in unequivocal terms, that smoking causes cancer. Multiple epidemiological studies, with thousands of patients, supported this statement. Nevertheless, researchers at that time still did not understand what tobacco had in common with other carcinogens. “How could DES [diethylstilbestorl, a medicine prescribed to prevent premature births], asbestos, radiation, hepatitis virus, and a stomach bacterium all converge on the same pathological state, although in different populations and in different organs?” No other disease troubled doctors and researchers with such a profound diversity of causes.

Rudolf Virchow, a researcher who renamed leukemia weisses Blut (white blood). "By wiping the slate clean of all preconceptions," writes Mukherjee, "he cleared the field for thought."

Around the same time, a scientist named Bruce Ames was studying Salmonella bacteria at Berkeley. Ames observed that certain chemicals caused the bacteria’s genes to mutate, and some of these mutations affected the bacteria’s growth. By exposing bacteria to various chemicals and quantifying the subsequent growth of the bacteria, he could create a catalog of “mutagens” – chemicals that increase mutation rate. That’s neat, but here’s the connection that Ames made: more often than not, the mutagens (in bacteria!) were also carcinogens (in people!). Based on events occurring in a petri dish, researchers could start to offer a unified definition of an elusive concept for the first time. Carcinogens behave similarly because they alter genes.

That’s a tiny glimpse into The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Readers who finish the book will also learn how the Jimmy Fund got its name, why Sidney Farber chose leukeumia as a starting point in his quest to cure cancer, how the medical establishment finally stopped performing radical mastectomies, which techniques cancer activists borrowed from AIDS activists, why many scientists thought the 1971 National Cancer Act was premature, and how the word cause got re-defined. This list of events seems disparate, and in another book, it might remain so. But Mukherjee ably synthesizes them and shows how each event played a role in the emerging understanding of cancer that we have today. In doing so, he demonstrates the advantage of treating cancer like a person, and writing its history like a biography.

Some other reviews of this book…

NPR: An oncologist’s Pulitzer-winning cancer biography

The New Yorker: Cancer world: The making of a modern disease

The New York Times: Cancer as old foe and goad to science

(Image from Clipart ETC)

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Creative scientific methods (with movie stars!)

As laypeople who read about science in newspapers and blogs, we’re often interested in results. Did the mice develop cancer? Sometimes, though, it’s not the results which offer the most food for thought, but the methods. How do you make a mouse smoke a cigarette?

Education level matters, even in movie star marriages

A new study in the Journal of Human Capital offers a nice example of what creative methods can do. The economist Gustaf Bruze studies how people select spouses. Not too surprisingly, people tend to select spouses with similar education levels: high school graduates marry other high school graduates, Ph.Ds marry other Ph.Ds.

Why? One possible explanation is proximity to similar folks. People spend a lot of time at school and at work. In both places, they’re very likely to meet people with education levels similar to their own. A different explanation is desire for financial stability. People might select a spouse whose education suggests that he or she will be a good provider.

It’s important to pinpoint the correct explanation because this marriage pattern has implications for social equality. People with higher education levels make more money. If they only marry peers with similar education levels, that money doesn’t move to other sectors of society.

To sort out these competing explanations, we need a method for examining what people do when neither proximity and financial stability matters. But that’s a real problem. Almost everyone works with colleagues who have similar education levels. And almost everyone’s income is related to their education.

Bruze came up with a creative solution. He studied movie actors. They differ from the rest of us in two key ways. One difference is proximity to similar folks. Movie actors don’t meet a homogenous group of people at work; instead, they meet a diverse group with a variety of education levels. (They also tend not to meet their spouses at school). The second difference concerns financial stability. Crucially, unlike most of us, movie actors do not earn wages that correlate with their formal education.

So Bruze analyzed data from 280 actors in the U.S. movie industry and got the following result. Movie actors marry movie actors with similar education levels — just like the rest of us! This suggests that neither proximity nor financial stability explains the marriage pattern. It seems, instead, that people simply have an inherent preference for spouses with similar education levels.

Bruze’s result may not surprise you much. Do people prefer similar people as spouses? Yes, they do. But his methodology should stimulate some creative thinking. How do you make a person take a spouse whose education suggests they won’t be a good provider? You don’t. Instead, you study someone who has already done so.

Related links

Scientific American: Movie star couples share educational backgrounds

Live Science: Want to marry a movie star?

Freakonomics: What can movie stars tell us about marriage and education?

ScienceNewsOnline: What can movie stars tell us about marriage?


Bruze, Gustaf. 2010. New evidence on the causes of educational homogamy. Department of economics, Aarhus University.

Clip art from Educational Technology Clearinghouse

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How to become a vampire

“There’s no literary term for the quality Twilight and Harry Potter (and The Lord of the Rings) share,” wrote Lev Grossman of Time magazine in 2008, “but you know it when you see it: their worlds have a freestanding internal integrity that makes you feel as if you should be able to buy real estate there.”

News from Thirsty Linguist

If there’s no literary term, we can test a scientific term instead: “narrative collective assimilation.” In a new study, Shira Gabriel and Ariana F. Young from the University at Buffalo asked 140 participants to spend thirty minutes reading a passage from either Twilight or Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Afterward, they measured the extent to which the participants psychologically assimilated to the collectives — vampires or wizards — described in each passage.

The results, to be published in an upcoming issue of Psychological Science, showed that the Twilight readers associated themselves with vampires, while the Harry Potter readers associated themselves with wizards. This finding held for both explicit measurements (“How sharp are your teeth?”) and implicit ones (the speed with which participants placed words like ME and FANGS into the same category).

Not all participants exhibited collective assimilation to the same degree. Gabriel and Young also administered standardized test items such as “When I join a group, I usually develop a strong sense of identification with that group.” Interestingly, participants who rated these items more highly also associated themselves more strongly with vampires or wizards after reading a passage. That is, participants who have stronger tendencies to identify with collectives in real life apparently transfer these tendencies to fiction.

Participants also completed a five-item questionnaire to indicate their mood, and a single-item questionnaire to indicate their life satisfaction (“Right now, in most ways, my life is close to ideal.”). Analysis of the results indicated that narrative collective assimilation correlated with better mood and increased life satisfaction. In other words, the more participants associated themselves with vampires or wizards after reading the passages, the better their mood and the higher their life satisfaction score.

Fiction is often viewed as an to escape from the real world, but Gabriel and Young conclude just the opposite. Fiction, they argue, offers an important opportunity to connect with social groups and participate in something bigger than ourselves.

So Grossman’s observation gets some confirmation from the laboratory: both Twilight and Harry Potter allow readers to climb inside a new world and “buy real estate”. Furthermore, doing so doesn’t just put you in a better mood — it actually makes you think that your entire life is better. That’s a striking finding.

Equally striking, though, is the fact that the results hold true for both books, despite the rather different critical receptions they have received.

Elizabeth Spires of The New York Times gave Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight a mixed review: “The premise of Twilight is attractive and compelling…but the book suffers at times from overearnest, amateurish writing. A little more ‘showing’ and a lot less ‘telling’ might have been a good thing.” Writing in the same publication, Michael Winerip had nothing but praise for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Like Harry himself, J.K. Rowling “had wizardry inside, and has soared beyond her modest Muggle surroundings to achieve something quite special.”

The Salon.com reviews also draw a contrast between the books. Laura Miller critiques Meyer’s characterization of Bella, the human protagonist of Twilight: she is “more of a place holder than a character. She is purposely made as featureless and ordinary as possible in order to render her a vacant, flexible skin into which the reader can insert herself and thereby vicariously enjoy Edward’s chilly charms.” Writing in the same publication, Charles Taylor says simply: “I don’t think you can read 100 pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone before you start feeling that unmistakable shiver that tells you you’re reading a classic.”

A close look at Gabriel and Young’s results actually does suggest that the participants assigned to read Harry Potter show greater effects of narrative collective assimilation than those assigned to read Twilight, particularly for the explicit measures. So Rowling’s prose may create a more measurably powerful experience for readers than Meyer’s. Still, the effects are present for both authors, and Gabriel and Young do not distinguish between them in their report.

We (or rather, I) like to think that the difference between amateurish writing and classic writing matters. But Gabriel and Young’s results potentially transcend this difference. Whether you read Twilight or Harry Potter, doing so makes you feel like part of a group. And that feeling is nothing short of transformative.

Related article

“Read a book, stay connected” in US News and World Report


Gabriel, Shira and Ariana F. Young. To appear. Becoming a vampire without being bitten: The narrative collective assimilation hypothesis. Psychological Science.

Meyer, Stephenie. 2005. Twilight. Little, Brown.

Rowling, J.K. 1997. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic.

Wikipedia articles on Twilight and Harry Potter.


Canteen clip art from Educational Technology Clearinghouse

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The Pulitzer Prize for Hypertext

Each year, the Pulitzer Prize committee supposedly bestows an award for distinguished fiction that deals with American life. But to my mind, this year’s committee bestowed an award for distinguished hypertext that demonstrates why we must read fiction in the Internet age.

Before I say why, let’s be clear: A Visit from the Goon Squad, which won the 2011 prize, isn’t hard to read. Author Jennifer Egan uses straightforward sentences. She portrays interesting characters that ring true, from aspiring teenage rock stars in San Francisco to loners fishing under Williamsburg Bridge. She sticks to familiar settings, like California and New York. And she talks a lot about rock and roll, which is fun.

Still, the reader has work to do. Goon Squad does not progress linearly through time. Each chapter takes place in a different year or decade, and Egan doesn’t tell you which one. She drops hints instead. Chapter 1: Sasha “hated the neighborhood at night without the World Trade Center.” Chapter 13: “the new buildings spiraled gorgeously against the sky, so much nicer than the old ones (which Alex had only seen in pictures)”. What year are we in? The reader must interpret these statements in order to build a chronology that connects one chapter to the next.

Nor does Good Squad present a unified voice. Third-person narration takes us through much of the book. But several estranged high school friends and a failed journalist each take a turn with first-person narration. A twelve-year old narrates her story with PowerPoint slides and demonstrates more facility with this medium than any businessperson I’ve ever seen. You (and I mean you) also take a turn in a chapter narrated in the second-person; your name is Rob and you die in a drowning accident, but wise readers knew your fate even before you did, based on clues presented earlier in the book. Who’s talking? The reader must interpret these voices in order to envision the characters, their passions, and their regrets. (Jonathan Bastian of NPR makes a similar point in his review).

So this book does not merely permit you to make connections, it demands that you do so. Unlike a mystery novel, however, it does not dictate how or when. As a result, A Visit from the Goon Squad is structurally incapable of being the same book twice. When I read it the first time, I connected the years and decades. I even got out the calculator and created a chronology of the thirteen chapters (this is so geeky, but according to my calculations, the book jumps from 2007, to 2006, 1979, 1973, 2005, 1997, 2002, 2007, 1998, 1992, 1989, and finally to the 2020’s in California and the 2020’s in New York City). When I read the book the second time, I connected the characters to one another; as in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, many characters in Goon Squad have a twin or a mirrored identity, but you’ve got to look for them. When I read it the third time, I tossed all of this aside and found smaller themes. Plumbers, of all people, keep re-appearing in the book. So do figures from Greek mythology. So do large bodies of water, sometimes clean and sometimes polluted.

So why must we read fiction? Some people argue that good fiction serves an antidote to the Internet age. Good fiction, they might say, stops our relentless jumping from one site to another. It requires us to slow down and patiently follow a narrative from start to finish. But if you ask me, A Visit from the Goon Squad changes all that. Good fiction, we can now say, not only allows us but encourages us to jump from one site to another. Good fiction reveals how richly active our minds can be when we are forced to make connections on our own, rather than having them made for us. Good fiction embraces PowerPoint. Good fiction, despite all the good evidence to the contrary, looks a lot like the Internet. Congratulations to Jennifer Egan on winning the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Hypertext.

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