Monday, May 25, 2015

David Markson on his Index Card Method

David Markson's books are an acquired taste. In fact, I have not acquired a taste for them. Some time ago, I read Wittgenstein's Mistress, published in 1988. It's celebrated as a great piece of post-modern writing. It seems to consist "entirely of the discrete, random thoughts of a woman who believes she’s the last person on earth," though "thoughts" is probably not the right word. It actually consists of a long list of short sentences without any apparent connection. After you have read the book and look over it again, you may however note some common themes. Some people argue that "what seems a random, slightly demented collection of observations and aphorisms and factoids and descriptions coalesces into something more solid but also more enigmatic." I don't dispute that this happens to some people. It did not happen to me, but then acupuncture does not work for me either. Perhaps I am just too skeptical.

Markson's best-known book came to my attention again because I recently bought and read David Foster Wallace's Both Flesh and Not which contains a long review of Markson's book, called "The Empty Plenum: David Markson's Wittgenstein's Mistress. I read it with great interest, but remain just as unconvinced of Markson's genius as I was before. He finds it is, "in a weird way, the colorization of a very old film" (77). Yes? Perhaps so. But I don't like colorizations of back and white movies either. Its "prose and monotone are hauntingly pedestrian" (77). Yes, they are pedestrian. But I don't see why they are hauntingly so? I don't know what the difference between merely pedestrian and hauntingly pedestrian is--and I understand that is my shortcoming. It is "structured half-way between shaggy-dog joke and deadly serious allegory" (79). Is there really a half-way house between those two or are they different sides of the same coin? The technique is "Deep Nonsense"--like that of Lewis Carroll, I suppose. Except it isn't.

Wallace also thinks that the book is "an imaginative portrait of what it would be like to actually live in the sort of world the logic and metaphysics of Wittgenstein's Tractatus posit" (86). That's interesting but misleading. Wittgenstein does not posit a different world from the one we all inhabit--or at least he does not mean to do that. So, Markson is criticizing Wittgenstein for getting the "logic and metaphysics" of the world wrong? Right! But is the criticism well-taken? Do "the discrete, random thoughts of a woman who believes she’s the last person on earth" really mirror Wittgenstein's world? Perhaps they do, and perhaps all of this also has to do with the impossibility of a private language (though I doubt it). But even if this characterization is true, Wittgenstein's Mistress remains colorless, monotone and pedestrian--at least it does so for me (which, I am sure, is a negative reflection on me). I might be like the child who claimed that the emperor had no clothes, but I may also be like the farmer who, looking at a Paul Klee, claimed his daughter could "do" that, too.

All of this led me to Markson's method which he described in an interview as follows:
I use index cards. I store them in the tops of a couple of shoes boxes. If I made a stack of them, they’d probably be about two feet tall. I’m constantly shuffling. This goes on for a couple of years. I might have a few quotations about Joyce, and I figure out which one goes where. I try to make sure I don’t overbalance. I know in the end that there’s going to be more literature, but I try to make sure I have as much about art and music, too. There’s always a certain amount of the classics and philosophy. With the historical stuff, it just depends upon its significance or irony. Then, somewhere along the line, I make notes about Author or whoever it is and figure out where they go. (…) When Reader’s Block came out, Kurt Vonnegut called me, two-thirds of the way through, and said, “David, what kind of computer did you use to juggle this stuff?” I told him what I’d done, and he called me when he finished it and said, “David, I’m worried about your mental condition.”
I tend have the same reaction as Kurt Vonnegut.

I gave my copy of Wittgenstein's Mistress to a graduate student last month. But I have just ordered Vanishing Point which I found described as follows:
it is a series of little snippets, from one word to a maximum of five or six lines. The narrative voice is presented as "Author" - never "the author" and not otherwise described. Author is writing on a 40-plus-year-old portable typewriter. The bits are presented as notes taken on 3-by-5-inch index cards that fill two shoeboxes. There's an early declaration that "Author is pretty sure that most of them are basically in the sequence he wants."
I am a sucker; and hope springs eternal.

John Locke on Writing Things Down

John Locke wrote to Samuel Bold on May 16, 1699: "You say you lose many things because they slip from you. I have had experience of that myself, but for that my Lord Bacon has provided a sure remedy. For, as I remember, he advises somewhere never to go without pen and ink, or something to write with, and to be sure not to neglect to write down all thoughts of moment that come into mind. I must own I have omitted it often, and often repented it. The thoughts that come often unsought, and, as it were, drop into the mind, are commonly the most valuable of any we have, and therefore should be secured, because they seldom recur again."

This homely advice gets quoted many times on the Internet--usually without the reference to Bacon and the necessity to carry "something to write with." It's perhaps strange that he does not mention "something to write on" as well because paper clearly was not as ubiquitous as it is now. But what follows is more interesting, I think:
Write down your thoughts upon any point as far as you have any time pursued them, and go on with them again some other time when you find your mind disposed to it, and so till you have carried them as far as you can, and you will be convinced that, if you have lost any, it has not been for want of strength of mind to bring them to an issue, but for want of memory to retain a long train of reasonings ... and so the train having slipped the memory, the pursuit stops, and the reasoning is neglected before it comes to the last conclusion. If you have not tried it, you cannot imagine the difference there is in studying with and without a pen in your hand. Your ideas, if the connexion of them that you have traced be set down, so that, without the pains of recollecting them in your memory, you can take an easy view of them again, will lead you farther than you could expect.
Locke is clearly aware of the fact that writing engenders more writing. And that thinking with "pen in hand" is really the only kind of thinking worth engaging in. "Pen in hand" is, of course, largely metaphorical today. The basic idea is that you have to "externalize" your thoughts in order to develop and refine them. If you keep them in your head, they tend to dissipate and develop only with great difficulty.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Unoffical Rotring Website

There is an official Rotring Website, and then there is the Unofficial Website. It seems to have been started on the 15th of January of this year by someone called "Olivier." Most of the entries so far are not about pens and pencils but about unusual technical instruments and Rotring paraphernalia. But there is hope. I will be a regular visitor.

Thanks to the clickypost!

Mavericks versus Yosemite, Update

It's now three weeks ago that I reverted from Yosemite to Mavericks because of the constant problems and crashes I experienced with external SSD drives. I am happy to say there was no crash during this entire period and the only problem I experience is that the App Store constantly reminds me to "update" to Yosemite. This is, of course, something I will never do.

I wish I could turn the reminder off, but all I seem to be able to do is tell the App Store is to wait until the next day to remind me again.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Rotring Dublin

I recently acquired a Rotring Dublin fountain pen. It sports a "Schmidt Iridium" nib, not one of the traditional Rotring nibs. It's probably of the same generation as the
Rotring Lissabon which feels like a good Chinese fountain pen. But whereas the Rotring Lissabon handles like a good Chinese fountain pen. The Dublin exudes nothing but cheapness. The clip is loose. The body, made of aluminum reminds of a throw-away pen. The cap is flimsy and does not fit well on the body of the pen: no click, for instance. It inspires no confidence. This is just the kind of pen that makes one glad that Sanford ceased to exploit the Rotring name.

I have resolved never to ink it up because I feel it won't stand up to any use at all. For a slightly more positive review see here.

Not recommended!

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Really Bad Idea for a Reading Plan

In my "research" for hoarding, I also found this:
You should first guess how many years you have left to live. Then estimate how many books you can read in that time. Then go to your book collection and sort the books in the order that you wish to read them (including those you have already read that you will read again) until you have equaled the number that you estimated you could read in your entire life. Then sell/give away all the other books. Then do not buy any books unless you come across a book you really want to read and only if you want to read it imminently.[1]
It struck me as a really bad idea or rather as the idea of someone who is not a reader. One of the things that makes reading interesting is that one book may stimulate new interests and lead you to the reading of other books. It is therefore difficult--I would say "impossible"--to predict what you are going to read next. It's the kind of advice someone would give who would ask "Have you read all these?" when entering your office.[2] Someone with this view does not understand that books are, among other things, tools. Some tools are not used very often. Some tools, like reference books, for instance, are used frequently. And you never really know when a book will become a reference book for you.

On the other hand, there are (still) libraries. If I had to thin out my book collection--and I do--I would use a different criterion, namely how useful do you think a book will be for the rest of your life. Obviously, the person who wrote the quoted passage has no real use for any books.

1. See here.
2. See also Have You Read All These?.

Hoarding versus Collecting, Again

A quote:
Hoarding is not the same as collecting. In general, collectors have a sense of pride about their possessions, and they experience joy in displaying and talking about their possessions and conversing. They keep their collection organized, feel satisfaction adding to it, and budget their time and money.

Hoarders generally experience embarrassment about their possessions and feel uncomfortable when others see them. Their clutter often takes over functional living space, and they feel sad or ashamed after acquiring additional items. Also, they often incur great debt, sometimes extreme.[1]

This is worth considering--or so it seems to me!

1. From the Anxiety and Depression Association of America; see also this article. I particularly like the expression "ego-dystonic".

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Mavericks Rocks!

Well, I downgraded upgraded to Mavericks. It was not easy. Apple obviously does not want you to do this. While you can download the installation package from the App Store, clicking on it, tells you that it won't run under Mavericks because it was designed for an older operating system. There is all kinds of advice on the Internet, but nothing really worked--at least not directly from Yosemite.

How did I do it? I installed it to a virtual machine in Parallels. The idea was that once I had the right operating system I could install it to a different disk (you know I mean SSD). No dice, the install failed. After the third trial I gave up. What did work was to clone the virtual drive by Carbon Copy Cloner to another disk, not an SSD, mind you (as that also always failed). But I did get it to clone to a hard drive, and THEN I could clone it to an SSD.

Mavericks has now been running for a few hours from the SSD without any of the problems that I had with Yosemite. I hope it will stay that way.

I suspect that Apple will close this hole soon as well. They seem to want everyone to march in lockstep!

Update at 10:00 on Monday. May 4: So far, so good.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Yosemite and SSD

After experiencing crashes at regular intervals since installing Yosemite-—of late, at least two times a day-—I have stopped using an external SSD as the boot disk in my Mac Mini. In fact, it seems that using any external drive as a boot disk no longer works. Nor can I reliably run my virtual Windows machine from a SSD. It's back to the slow internal drive of the machine.

It works (and I have not had a crash for two days), but I do feel cheated. Something that worked for at least three has been taken away by Apple for no other reason than more profits-—or so it seems to me! As I said in an earlier post, my present Mac Mini will probably be my last Apple computer.