Project Gutenberg!

Few things have transformed society as much as the moveable-type printing press. By dramatically reducing the cost of reproducing the written word, the press sent shock waves through our civilization. Not long after there was Cervantes, and the novel was born.

Now we have the Internet, enabling new literary forms (and, even more illiterary forms). And, thanks to the folks at Project Gutenberg, not only can we waste our lives searching for the rare gems in the raucous jungles of the blogosphere, we can peruse the classics that got us here. Their goal is pretty straightforward — archive all books that are in public domain and make them available to anyyone with the technology to access them.

I had read about this project, but hadn’t taken the time to drop by until I was doing a search for Ring Lardner, a humorist who is mentioned in The Catcher in the Rye. I downloaded and read The Real Dope, which was, indeed, quite funny.

Then I looked at the “Most popular downloads” page and the biggest movers were textbooks. The most popular authors, with more than a thousand downloads per day, were Mark Twain and Jane Austen. My guess is that this would correspond to writers popular in literature curriculums. Also near the top was Sun Tsu’s Art of War, someone’s Illustrated History of Furniture, and Beowolf. “Beowolf,” thought I, “cool. I should read that.”

So I downloaded the book in a few seconds and after going through the translator’s notes from the 1880’s and a few newer notes about the current digital encoding and choice for what characters to use, I got to the poem. In Old English. Completely unreadable unless you happen to know Old English. I assume the thing’s a top download simply because it’s a top download. It’s hard to imagine that hundreds of people who know Old English and don’t happen to already have at least one copy of Beowolf in Old English are going to be happening by each day.

Anyway, you can bet your boots I’ll be dropping by from time to time to brush up on the great classics of literature. For instance, right now I’m reading Gods of Mars by Edgar Rice Borroughs.

Half a Million Words

I ran my little “just how much of his life has Jerry wasted” script this morning and got back the result: this blog has passed the half-million words line. 503,909, to be precisely inexact. The total includes a few words written by other people (as in the Bacon Haiku episode), but does not include episode titles or the little blurb at the beginning of most episodes.

For a very rough comparison, at 250 words per page in a typical paperback, printing the contents of this blog would cover roughly 2000 pages. (It might be less because there is relatively little dialog here, but you get the idea.) That’s a lot of muddled ramblings. I’m sitting here sipping my congratulatory tea, trying to imagine someone reading this thing from start to finish. Ouch. Maybe it would be like Las Vegas – success just often enough to keep a reader going. Somehow I doubt that.

Still, I suspect that out there are folks who have read just about all of those half-million words. This milestone is for you guys, the stalwarts, the ones who have stuck around through the lean times. It’s also dedicated to the newcomers, those who have become regulars recently, the ones stepping up to carry Muddled Ramblings into the future! (Both of you.)

So, where should we celebrate MuddleCon 1,000,006 in 2012?

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger is one of those American classics that everyone is supposed to read. Somehow I never did. As an American who proposes to make a living butting words up next to each other, I’ve been working on closing up some of the gaping holes in my mental library.

The results of these efforts are almost always rewarding. There’s a reason these books have gained the stature they have. This one is no exception and I will not attempt to add to the already-too-large body of criticism surrounding it. People, it seems, can make a big deal out of a good story.

The main guy, the narrator, Holden, is a high-school kid who is full of contradictions. He knows what he is supposed to be, he knows what he wants to be, and he’s acutely aware that he is neither. What he is, we start to realize, is better (by conventional standards) than what he thinks he should be. He aspires to be a modern, devil-may-care man, but he simply isn’t. He cares about a lot of things. He cares so much it’s a little scary.

That’s my take, anyway.

After reading the first few paragraphs I knew this book would be a special sort of challenge for me. A personal one, a gauntlet thrown. There is a voice driving this narrative, a guy speaking in a very natural manner that exposes his character, and old JD isn’t going to let the English language get in the way. There are times Salinger simply repeats the same sentence twice. The same goddam sentence. Twice. That old JD knocked me out sometimes the way he’d just repeat things like that.

Sometimes I write stuff like that. I just let fly, type like I think, words are punctuation, punctuation are words. Fragments. Asides, nonlinear thought expressed in a linear form. Then I delete it, or clean it up, to make it easier to digest. What I get from Salinger is not just a very good read but also an example that done well there’s nothing wrong with setting aside rules, as long as the result is a distinctive voice. My first drafts tend to be much more courageous than my final results. Maybe that’s not a bad thing most of the time, but I think I miss opportunities too often.

Note: if you use the above link to buy this book (or a Kindle, or a new car), I get a kickback.

Ballroom Dancing: NOT a Sport

For some reason, here at Little Café Near Home, we are watching some sort of Ballroom dancing competition. Like figure skating, it fails on all three of my criteria for being a good sport:

  1. No judges – if you need someone else to tell you who won, it’s not a sport at all. Lack of an empirical scoring system removes the activity from even being considered as a sport, let alone a good one.
  2. Scoring must be a significant event – NBA, please take note. Scoring should be a cause for celebration.
  3. Scoring must be possible – take hockey. Points are rare, but things are nuts and a score could happen at almost any moment. Soccer occupies this weird realm where almost scoring is such a rare event that even that is cause of great emotional release. I will grudgingly allow that perhaps you can derive some tension from knowing that your team could in the next few minutes work their way into a situation where they almost score (but probably won’t).

Anyway, ballroom dancing stumbles at criterion number one, and so cannot be considered a sport at all. Yet here it is on the Czech sport channel. All other judgement of worthiness aside, I watched for a while and wondered, “isn’t dancing supposed to be fun?” I watched a little longer and had to wonder, “isn’t dancing supposed to be about being with someone?

Here’s the thing: the women in these events have their backs arched and their necks twisted such that one must conclude that they find the man they are with repulsive. They hold their heads as far from their partner as possible, with plastic smiles on their faces, looking anywhere but at the man. I’ve had dance partners like that, actively radiating disinterest, lest I get the wrong idea. Yet here are the friggin’ professionals, people who theoretically have chosen to be together, yet to appear to be enjoying the company of your dance partner is considered bad form. When the music’s over they still don’t look at each other; they turn and suck up to the crowd. I wonder what would happen if one of these teams went out and did a really passionate dance, eyes locked, and at the end the dude gave her a little kiss. Maybe just a kiss on the hand, thanking her for the wonderful time they just spent together. Like they were courting. Like they were dancing.

Forget about whether it’s a sport; in my book, this competition is not even dancing. It is, to twist a phrase, strictly “ballroom”.

Tons and Tons

Q: Which weighs more, a ton of feathers or a ton of lead?

A: A ton of paperwork.

Although, now that I think about it, if one were to weigh out a ton of feathers and a ton of lead at sea level, the mass of the feathers would exceed the mass of the lead. The feathers would be be more bouyant. Neither, however, come anywhere close to the crushing weight of a ton of paperwork.

Overheard In My Apartment

I talk to myself often, but I rarely listen. Tonight I was standing in the middle of the room, looking about, when I heard myself say, “There’s a new kind of wisdom in town.”

Livin’ The Dream

A conversation I had this morning reminded me of this fragment. I’ve tried a couple of times to put the image of the morning changing of the guard into a story, into something that follows “Moonlight Sonata”, but it hasn’t worked yet. This fragment is just another of those abortive attempts, but I like it OK.

“Hey, Doc! Some guy was looking for you.”

“Do I want him to find me?”

Sparky scratched his head. “Not sure. Didn’t look like a bill collector or anything. He was wearing a suit, though.”

I couldn’t think of anything I’d want from a man in a suit, which meant if he never found me that would be all right. I sipped my coffee as Sparky slipped into the seat across from me, starting on his breakfast beer. He made a satisfied smacking sound with his lips.

“He had a black eye,” Sparky said. “You hit anyone lately?”

“I’m a lover, not a fighter, man.” I yawned. The sun would be rising soon. The little café was in transition; the last of the night people were desperately clinging to wakefulness, trying with forced gaiety to hold onto something they had never had. They were giving way to the morning people, coming in for a smoke and a jolt of caffeine before moving on to the grind of the day. At one table a girl was asleep, head on outstretched arm, party dress rumpled, while her friends chatted on and ordered shots of Becherovka. Next to them three men in coveralls were smoking and having a morning beer before going to work, idly trying to flirt with the party girls, but the girls were too far gone to notice.

“Fuck, Doc, what are we doing here?” Sparky asked, looking at the ceiling.

“Livin’ the dream, Sparks, Livin’ the dream.”

He rubbed his eyes. “Yeah, but whose dream? I’ve been sitting in this chair or one just like, morning after morning, for years now. It never changes. Even the tourists are the same.”

“Maybe you should take a break.”

“That’s what I’ve been doing, for about five years now.”

Five years was a long time to last on the underside of the city. The life there wears you down, making you less and less distinct until you finally just disappear. Everyone is just passing through; friendships are fleeting and conversations often start, ‘Whatever happened to…?’ But before long you don’t remember the names, and the faces blur and fade.

Talking about time meant Sparky had one foot out the door already. Once you accept that there is such a thing as progress you start to notice that you aren’t making any. I was going to miss him. He had seemed more solid than most of the night folk. I had almost come to know him.