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“At the base of the immense pillar, tiny Babylon was in shadow. Then the darkness climbed the tower, like a canopy unfurling upward. It moved slowly enough that Hillalum felt he could count the moments passing, but then it grew faster as it approached, until it raced past them faster than he could blink, and they were in twilight.

“Hillalum rolled over and looked up, in time to see darkness rapidly ascend the rest of the tower. Gradually, the sky grew dimmer as the sun sank beneath the edge of the world, far away.

“…For the first time, he knew night for what it was: the shadow of the earth itself, cast against the sky.”

– Ted Chiang, “Tower of Babylon”

“Today, most politically correct people celebrate the fact of racial, ethnic, or religious differences, but we do not believe in them as our humanist ancestors did. We focus on toleration, particularly on the rights of people who differ from us, but toleration can be itself a form of mutual indifference, leaving one another alone, each in his or her own sphere, as a version of getting along together. Our humanist forebears, particularly those of a practical bent, thought of difference, as it were, making more of a difference. True, the differences they had in mind were different views of material things and what could be done with them. True, also, the early modern era imposed its own Christian culture on the peoples outside Europe it subjugated or enslaved. But the technological and scientific mentality of humanism formulated a simple precept about the experience of difference that, I think, remains powerful in thinking about alternatives to the mere toleration of cultural differences today.

“The precept was that informal, open-ended cooperation is how best to experience difference. Each of the terms in this precept mattters. ‘Informal’ means that contacts between people of differing skills or interests are rich when messy, weak when they become regulated, like boring meetings run strictly on formal rules of order. ‘Open-ended’ means you want to find out what another person is about without knowing where it will lead; put another way, you want to avoid the iron rule of utility that establishes a fixed goal – a product, a policy objective – in advance. ‘Cooperation’ is the simplest and most important term. You suppose that different parties all gain by exchanging rather than one part gaining at the exense of others.”

– Richard Sennett, “Humanism”

“…objects help us exorcise some of our fears… they are stronger than we are, perfect and independent… they give us a semblance of permanence and grant a stay against chaos, darkness, oblivion.”

– Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, “Objects of Affection”

“My youthful materialism thrived in a country where materialism – unless of the Marxist variety – was unanimously condemned as the ugly outgrowth of Western consumer societies. We knew this was just an ideological cover-up for the never-ending shortages. My brand of materialism didn’t belong in a consumer society either, because it was a kind of disproportionate attachment to things that was caused by scarcity, something unheard-of in a market economy. I couldn’t want more, new, or better. Such wanting was at best a futile and abstract exercise, so I learned to practice self-limitation.”

– Ewa Hryniewicz-Yarbrough, “Objects of Affection”

“Your professors will give you some fine books to read, and they’ll probably help you understand them. What they won’t do, for reasons that perplex me, is to ask you if the books contain truths you could live your lives by. When you read Plato, you’ll probably learn about his metaphysics and his politics and his way of conceiving the soul. But no one will ask you if his ideas are good enough to believe in… No one will suggest that you might use Plato as your bible for a week or a year or longer. No one, in short, will ask you to use Plato to help you change your life.

“That will be up to you. You must put the question of Plato to yourself…

“Society has a whole cornucopia of resources to encourage you in doing what society needs done but that you don’t much like doing and are not cut out to do. To ease your grief, society offers alcohol, television, drugs, divorce, and buying, buying, buying what you don’t need. But all those, too, have their cons.

“Education is about finding out what form of work for you in close to being play – work you do so easily that it restores you as you go…. Having found what’s best for you to do, you may be surprised how far you rise, how prosperous, even against your own projections, you become…

“These are the kinds of problems that are worth having and if you advance, as Thoreau said, in the general direction of your dreams, you may have them. If you advance in the direction of someone else’s dreams – if you want to live someone else’s life rather than yours – then get a TV for every room, buy yourself a lifetime supply of your favorite quaff, crank up the porn channel, and groove away. But when we expend our energies in rightful ways, Robert Frost observed, we stay whoel and vigorous and we don’t weary. ‘Strongly spent,’ the poet says, ‘is synonymous with kept.”

– Mark Edmunson, “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?”

“What colleges generally want are well-rounded students, civic leaders, people who know what the system demands, how to keep matters light, not push too hard for an education or anything else; people who get their credentials and leave the professors alone to do their brilliant work, so they may rise and enhance the rankings of the university. Such students leave and become donors and so, in their own turn, contribute immeasurably to the university’s standing. They’ve done a fine job skating on surfaces in high school – the best way to get to an across-the-board outstanding record – and now they’re on campus to cut a few more figure eights.

“In a culture where the major and determining values are monetary, what else could you do? How else would you live if not by getting all you can, succeeding all you can, making all you can?”

– Mark Edmunson, “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?”

“No one in this picture is evil; no one is criminally irresponsible. It’s just that smart people are prone to look into matters to see how they might go about buttering their toast. Then they butter their toast.”

– Mark Edmunson, “Who Are You and What Are You Doing Here?”

“Don’t you know that four fifths of all our troubles in this life would disappear if we would just sit down and keep still?”

– Calvin Coolidge

“Reality is a very subjective affair. I can only define it as a kind of gradual accumulation of information; and as specialization. If we take a lily, for instance, or any other kind of natural object, a lily is more real to a naturalist than it is to an ordinary person. But it is still more real to a botanist. And yet another stage of reality is reached with that botanist who is a specialist in lilies. You can get nearer and nearer, so to speak, to reality; but you never get near enough because reality is an infinite succession of steps, levels of perception, false bottoms, and hence unquenchable, unattainable. You can know more and more about one thing but you can never know everything about one thing: it’s hopeless.”

– Nabokov

“Neither intellectuals nor philistines, they are the kind to ‘know what they like’ and have the ‘courage of their convictions,’ though their convictions are not entirely their own and their courage mostly fear. They are capable of cruelty born of laziness, but also of an unexpected spiritual greatness born of love.”

– Zadie Smith, “EM Forster, Middle Manager”

“No one could be nicer; & yet she has the soul of the lake, not of the sea… nothing is more fascinating than a live person; always changing, resisting & yielding against one’s forecast.”

– Virginia Woolf, The Diary of Virginia Woolf Vol I

There was a man of double deed,
Who sowed his garden full of seed;
When the seed began to grow,
‘Twas like a garden full of snow;
When the snow began to melt,
‘Twas like a ship without a belt;
When the ship began to sail,
‘Twas like a bird without a tail;
When the bird began to fly,
‘Twas like an eagle in the sky;
When the sky began to roar,
‘Twas like a lion at my door;
When my door began to crack,
‘Twas like a stick across my back;
When my back began to smart,
‘Twas like a penknife in my heart;
And when my heart began to bleed,
‘Twas death, and death, and death indeed.


The second stage is sleeplessness.
At first there was worry.
The third stage is “ordinary people.
”The fourth: what to do.

The first stage is chaos.
The second is invention.
The steam engine. The napkin.
The picnic table. Money.

First you were walking across a bridge.
Then you were flying.
Then you were sweeping the floor.

First comes love.
Then nausea.

First pleasure.
Just a little pinch.

First the pupa, then the wings.
Wordlessness. Night.

The first thing is labor.
The second, we don’t know.

First comes water.
Then air.
A hurricane. A sigh.
Abigail. Norma. Laquisha.
Molly. Sylvia. Roxanne.
Temperance. Emma. Delilah.
Daphne. Wilhelmina. Georgette.
Landfall. Rubble.

The first stage was childhood.
The second stage was Beatrice.

The first stage was Beatrice.
The second stage was hell.

First the city, then the forest.
The second stage was Virgil.
The third stage was expurgated.
The fourth went unnoticed.
The last stage was a letter.
A single meaningless hum.

What came first the money launderers or the flatterers.
What came first the Catherine wheel or the icebox.

In the beginning a voice.
In the beginning paramecia.

First carbon.Then electricity.
Then shoes.

In the beginning a tree.

Before the house, a cave.
Before the cave, a swamp.
Before the swamp, a desert.

The garden was in the middle.
Between the sidewalk and the street.

In the beginning soup.

Then tables. The stock market.
Things on four legs.

In the beginning I was frightened.
Then the darkness told a joke.

Which came first the river or the bank.
Which came first the priest or the undertaker.
Which came first crime or punishment.
Which came first the firemen or the cops.
Which came first conquest or discovery.
The fork or the spoon.
The point or the lineup.
The FBI or the CIA.

Which came first gravity or grace.
Which came first cotton or wool.
Which came first the slaver or the ship.
Which came first the ankle or the wing.
The hummingbird or the frog.
Puberty or ideology.

Which came first memory or forgiveness.
Which came first prohibition or women’s suffrage.
Coffee or tea.

What came first yes or no.
What comes first silver or gold.
Porcelain or silk.Pen or paper.

What came first Kyoto or Dresden.
What came first the renaissance or the reformation.
What would you rather be a rabbit or a duck.
Who is more powerful Mephistopheles or Marguerite.
Who’s it going to be me or you.
What would you rather do burn or drown.

In the beginning I was invincible.
In the middle I came apart.

First there was a library then there was a café.
Then there was a wall of glass.

Which came first The Melancholy of Departure or The Double Dream of Spring.

Which came first repression or resistance.
Grammar or syntax.
The siren or the gunshot.
Which came first granite or marble.
The army or the drone.
The whistling or the blackbird.
Which came first sugar or rum. Pineapple or bananas.
The senate or the corporation.

Was the story half-empty or half-full.

What feels better pity or anger.
What scares you more life or death.
What describes you best, the steam in the engine or a penny on the tracks.
What were you thinking, a whimper or a bang.
What would you choose, a sandwich or a phone call.
What did you expect, a question or an answer.
A piano or a clock.
Take all the time you want.

Elizabeth Willis

“One of the reasons I feel empty after watching a lot of TV, and one of the things that makes TV seductive, is that it gives the illusion of relationships with people. It’s a way to have people in the room talking and being entertaining, but it doesn’t require anything of me. They’re there for me and I can receive from the TV, I can receive entertainment and stimulation. Without having to give anything back but the most tangential kind of attention.

“The problem is it’s also very empty. Because one of the differences about having a real person there is that number one, I’ve gotta do some work. He pays attention to me, I gotta pay attention to him. I watch him, he watches me. The stress level goes up. But there’s also something nourishing about it, because as creatures, we’ve all got to figure out how to be together in the same room.

“What has happened to us – and I do this too – that I’m willing to derive enormous amounts of my sense of community and awareness of other people, from television? But I’m not willing to undergo the stress and awkwardness and potential shit of dealing with real people.”

– David Foster Wallace, Althought Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

“What I’m talkin’ about is entertainment versus art, where the main job of entertainment is to separate you from your cash somehow. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It gives you a certain kind of pleasure that I would argue is fairly passive. There’s not a whole lot of thought involved, the thought is often fantasy, like ‘I am this guy, I’m having this adventure.’ And it’s a way to take a vacation from myself for a while. And that’s fine – I think the same way candy is fine.

“We’re absolutely dying to give ourselves away to something. To run, to escape, somehow. And there’s some kinds of escape – in a sort of Flannery O’Connorish way – that end up, in a twist, making you confront yourself even more. And then there are other kinds that say, ‘Give me seven dollars, and in return I will make you forget your name is David Wallace, that you have a pimple on your cheek, and that your gas bill is due.

“And that’s fine, in low doses. But there’s something about the machinery of our relationship to it that makes low doses – we don’t stop at low doses…

“This problem is not gonna go away. In ten or fifteen years, we’re gonna have virtual reality pornography. Now, if I don’t develop some machinery for being able to turn off pure unalloyed pleasure, and allow myself to go out and grocery shop and pay the rent? I don’t know about you, but I’m gonna have to leave the planet. The technology’s gonna get better and better at what it does, which is seduce us into being incredibly dependent on it, so that advertisers can be more confident that we will watch their advertisements. And as a technology system, it’s amoral.

“It doesn’t have a responsibility to care about us one whit more than it does: It’s got a job to do. The moral job is ours. Why am I watching five hours a day of this? Why am I getting 75 percent of my calories from candy? That’s something that a little child would do… Somewhere along the line, we’re supposed to have grown up.”

– David Foster Wallace, Althought Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

“We sit around and bitch about how TV has ruined the audience for reading – when really all it’s done is given us the really precious gift of making our job harder. The harder it is to make a reader feel like it’s worthwhile to read your stuff, the better a chance you’ve got of making real art. Because it’s only real art that does that.

“You teach the reader that he’s way smarter than he thought he was. I think one of the most insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy. When in fact there are parts of us that are a lot more ambitious than that. And what we need is seriously engaged art, that can teach again that we’re smart.

“Which is tricky, because you want to seduce the reader, but you don’t want to pander or manipulate them. A good book teaches the reader how to read it.”

– David Foster Wallace, Althought Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

“I think that the ultimate way you and I get lucky is if you have some success early in life, you get to find out early it doesn’t mean anything. Which means you get to start early the work of figuring out what does mean something… What I remember is the times when woring on that book was really hard. And I just gutted it out. And I finished something. And I did it for the book… I feel like I’ve built some muscles inside me that I can now use for the rest of my life. And I know now how to live in such a way that I’m doing it for the work itself.”

– David Foster Wallace, Althought Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

“There’s really really shitty avant-garde, that’s coy and hard for its own sake. As the texture, as the cognitive texture, of our lives changes. And as the different media by which our lives are represented change… it’s the avant-garde or experimental stuff that has the chance to move the stuff along . And that’s what’s precious about it.

“The reason I’m angry at how shitty most of it is, and how much it ignores the reader, is that I think it’s very very very very precious. Because it’s the stuff that’s about what it feels like to live. Instead of being a relief from what it feels like to live.

“My life and my self doesn’t feel anything like a unified developed character in a linear narrative. But my guess is, looking at things like MTV videos or new fashions in ads, with more and more flash cuts, or the use of computer metaphors… that I think a lot of people feel overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, and by the number of discrete different things that come at them. Whether that’s qualitatively different than the way life was for let’s say our parents our our grandparents, I’m not sure. But I think so. At least in terms of the way it feels on your nerve endings.

“I’m talking about what it feels like to be alive. And how formal and structural stuff in avant-garde things can vibrate, can represent on a page, what it feels like to be alive right now… If your life makes linear sense to you, then you’re either very strange, or you might be just a neurologically healthy person – who’s automatically able to decoct, organize, do triage on the amount of stuff that’s coming at you all the time.”

– David Foster Wallace, Althought Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

“Logic dictates that writing should be a natural act, a function of a well-operating human body, along the lines of speaking and walking and breathing. We should be able to tap into the constant narrative flow our minds provide, the roaring river of words filling up our heads, and direct it out into a neat stream of organized thought so that other people can read it.

“But that’s right about there, right about when we sit down to write that story, that things fall apart. I’ve had people come up to me at book signings, in grocery stores, at every cocktail party I’ve ever attended, and tell me they have a brilliant idea for a book… I feel for these people, even as they’re assuming I’m not bright enough to realize where they’ve gotten stuck.

“If a person has never given writing a try, they assume that a brilliant idea is hard to come by. But really, even if it takes some digging, ideas are out there. Just open your eyes and look at the world. Writing the ideas down, it turns out, is the real trick.

“Living a life is not the same as writing a book, and it got me thinking about the relationship between what we know and what we can put on paper. For me, it’s like this: I make up a novel in my head. This is the happiest time in the arc of my writing process. The book is my invisible friend, omnipresent, evolving, thrilling. During the months (or years) it takes me to put my ideas together… I’m figuring things out, and all the while the book makes a breeze around my head like an oversized butterfly whose wings were cut from the rose window in Notre Dame. This book I have not yet written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

“And so I do. When I can’t think of another stall, when putting it off has actually become more painful than doing it, I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from teh region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page… What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly assembled. Dead. That’s my book.

“…The journey from the head to hand is perilous ad lined with bodies. It is the road on which nearly everyone who wants to write – and many people who do write – get lost… Only a few of us are going to be willing to break our own hearts by trading in the living beauty of imagination for the stark disappointment of words. This is why we type a line or two and then hit the delete button or crumple up the page. Certainly that was not what I meant to say! That does not represent what I see.

“It turns out that the distance from head to hand, from wafting butterfly to entomological specimen, is achieved through regular practice. What begins as something like a dream will in fact stay a dream forever unless you have the tools and the discipline to bring it out. Think of the diamonds, or, for that matter the ever-practical coal that must be chipped out of the mine. Had I wound up with a teacher who suggested we keep an ear cocked for the muse instead of hoisting a pick, I don’t think I would have gotten very far.

“Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration? Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another story. Think of a sink pipe filled ith sticky sediment. The only way to get clean water is to force a small ocean through the tap. Most of us are full up with bad stories, boring stories, self-indulgent stories, searing works of unendurable melodrama. We must get all of them out of our system in order to find the good stories that may or may not exist in the freshwater underneath… I got better at closing the gap between my hand and my head by clocking in the hours, stacking up the pages. Somewhere in all my years of practice, I don’t know where exactly, I arrived at the art. I never learned how to take the beautiful thing in my imagination and put it on paper without feeling I killed it along the way. I did, however, learn how to weather the death, and I learned how to forgive myself for it.

“Forgiveness. The ability to forgive oneself. … it is the key to making art. Every time I have set out to translate the book that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing.

“Writer’s block is a topic of great discussion. I understand being stuck. It can take a very long time to figure something out, and sometimes, no matter how much time you put in, the problem cannot be solved. To put it another way, if it were a complicated math proof you were wrestling with, would you consider yourself ‘blocked’ if you couldn’t figure it out right away, or would you think that the proof was difficult and required more consideration? The many months (and sometimes years) I put into thinking about a novel before I start to write it saves me considerable time while I’m writing.

“Even if I don’t believe in writer’s block, I certainly believe in procrastination. Writing can be frustrating and demoralizing, and so it’s only natural that we try to put it off… I have a habit of ranking everything in my life that needs doing. The thing I least want to do is number one on the list, and that is almost always writing fiction. I will zoom through a whole host of unpleasant tasks in an attempt to avoid item number one – writing fiction. (I admit this is complicated, that I can simultaneously profess to love writing and to hate it…)

“The lesson is this: the more we are willing to separate from distraction and step into the open arms of boredom, the more writing will get on the page. If you want to write and can’t figure out how to do it, try picking an amount of time to sit at your desk every day. Start with twenty minutes, say, and work up as quickly as possible to as much time as you can spare. Do you really want to write? Sit for two hours a day. During that time, you don’t have to write, but you must stay at your desk without distraction: no phone, no Internet, no books. Sit still quietly. Do this for a week, for two weeks. Do not nap or check your e-mail. Keep on sitting for as long as you remain interested in writing. Sooner or later you will write because you will no longer be able to stand not writing, or you’ll get up and turn the television on because you will no longer be able to stand all the sitting. Either way, you’ll have your answer.

“I’ve spent long periods when I’ve written every day, though it’s nothing that I’m slavish about. In keeping with the theory that there are times to write and times to think and times to just live your life, I’ve gone months without writing and never missed it. One December my husband and I were having dinner with our friends Connie Heard and Edgar Meyer. I was complaining that I’d been traveling too much, giving too many talks, and that I wasn’t getting any writing done. Edgar, who is a double bass player, was singing a similar tune. He’d been on the road constantly and he was nowhere near finishing all the compositions he had due. But then he told me a trick: he had put a sign-in sheet at the door of his studio, and when he went in to compose he wrote down the time, and when he stopped composing he wrote down that time, too. He told me he had found that the more hours he spent composing, the more compositions he finished.

“Time applied equaled work completed. It’s possible to let the thinking about process become so overly analyzed that the obvious answer gets lost… Now when people tell me they’re desperate to write a book, I tell them about Edgar’s sign-in sheet. I tell them to give this great dream that is burning them down like a house fire one lousy hour a day for one measly month, and when they’ve done that – one month, every single day – to call me back and we’ll talk. They almost never call back. Do you want to do this thing? Sit down and do it. Are you not writing? Keep sitting there. Does it not feel right? Keep sitting there… Is there some shortcut? Not one I’ve found.”

– Ann Patchett, “The Getaway Car”

“Divorce, the writer said, had become too easy. Waltz in, waltz out.

“Waltz in, maybe. Make marriage harder if you want to. Outlaw those Vegas chapels with the neon wedding bells, require marriage applications modeled after tax forms, but leave divorce alone. To leave, you have to involve the courts. You have to sue the person you live with for your freedom. You have to disconnect your life from another life and face the sea alone.

“I do not believe that there were more happy marriages, before divorce became socially acceptable, that people tried harder, got through their rough times, and were better off. I believe that more people suffered.

“…if we fail at marriage, we are lucky we don’t have to fail with the force of our whole life… Forgiveness is important not so much because we’ve done wrong as because we feel we need to be forgiven. Family, friends, God, whoever loves us forgives us, takes us in again. They are thrilled by our life, our possibilities, our second chances. They weep with gladness that we did not have to die.”

– Ann Patchett, “The Sacrament of Divorce”