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Category Archives: observation

“Speaking’s just a form of thinking and he must be as stupid as he appears.”

– Ian McEwan, Nutshell

“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”

“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

“…she lived in a world with so many privileges that there was nothing to fight for.”

– Ann Patchett, Bel Canto

“Some people are born to make great art and others are born to appreciate it. It is a kind of talent in itself, to be an audience. Not everyone can be an artist. There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see.”

– Ann Patchett, Bel Canto

“The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.”

— Samuel Beckett, Murphy

“Our world is mostly mapped, its common species mostly named. For a while, video games filled the gap, presenting new, uncharted virtual lands to satisfy players’ wanderlust…. Why do we explore? There’s the thrill of novelty, sure, but in some baser part of the brain, below the realm of language, the game demonstrates that we are also drawn to the promise of finding somewhere better.”

– Simon Parkin, “All Alone in No Man’s Sky

“We should keep in mind that vulgar has many dictionary definitions and that only a couple of these have to do w/ lewdness or bad taste. At root, vulgar just means popular on a mass scale. It is the semantic opposite of pretentious or snobby. It is humility with a combo-over. It is Nielsen ratings and Barnum’s axiom and the real bottom line. It is big, big business.”

– David Foster Wallace, “Big Red Son”

“An ad that pretends to be art is like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwilll without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.

[Footnote] This is related to the phenomenon of the Professional Smile, a national pandemic in the service industry… You know this smile – the strenuous contraction of circumoral fascia w/incomplete azygomatic involvement – the smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signifies nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretneding to like the smilee. Why do employers and supervisors force professional service people to broadcast the Professional Smile? Am I the only consumer in whom high doses of such a smile produce despair? Am I the only person who’s sure that the growing number of cases in wihch totally average-looking people suddenly open up with automatic weapons in shopping malls and insurance offices and medical complexes and McDonaldses is somehow causally related to the fact that these venues are well-known dissemination-loci of the Professional Smile?

Who do they think is fooled by the Professional Smile?

And yet the Professional Smile’s absence now also causes despir… What a fucking mess.”

– David Foster Wallace, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again”

“The myth of New York seems to be sustained by the fact that so many people who live there are from somewhere else. They come to the city and immediately dedicate themselves to making it the city of their imagination.”

– Eula Biss, Notes From No Man’s Land, “Goodbye to All That”

“Slowly I’ve come to the view that what underlies morality is the imagination itself… Our imagination permits us to understand what it is like to be someone else. I don’t think you could have even the beginnings of a morality unless you had the imaginative capacity to understand what it would be like to be the person whom you’re considering beating round the head with a stick. An act of cruelty is ultimately a failure of the imagination. Fiction is a deeply moral form in that it is the perfect medium for entering the mind of another. It is at the level of empathy that moral questions begin in fiction.”

– Ian McEwan

“A microscopic egg had failed to divide in time due to a failure somewhere along a chain of chemical events, a tiny disturbance in a cascade of protein reactions. A molecular event ballooned like an exploding universe, out onto the wider scale human misery. No cruelty, nothing avenged, no ghost moving in mysterious ways. Merely a gene transcribed in error, an enzyme recipe skewed, a chemical bond severed. A process of natural wastage as indifferent as it was pointless. Which only brought into relief healthy, perfectly formed life, equally contingent, equally without purpose. Blind luck, to arrive in the world with your properly formed parts in the right place, to be born to parents who were loving, not cruel, or to escape, by geographical or social accident, war or poverty. And therefore to find it so much easier to be virtuous.”

– Ian McEwan, The Children Act

“Libraries are sanctuaries from the world and command centers onto it… They are, ideally, places where nothing happens and where everything that has happened is stored up to be remembered and relived, the place where the world is folded up into boxes of paper.”

– Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

“It seems to me that Western Christian culture is all about objects. For an African it is not so important to preserve a mask from the sixteenth century. What is important is to have someone now who still has the skill to make a mask. In many other traditions, it’s not important to keep the object, but what is of value is knowing the idea or story behind it.”

– Christian Boltanski

“There was a certain luxury to charity that she could not identify with and did not have. To take ‘charity’ for granted, to revel in this charity towards people whom one did not know – perhaps it came from having had yesterday and having today and expecting to have tomorrow.”

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

“Humility had always seemed to him a specious thing, invented for the comfort of others; you were praised for humility by people because you did not make them feel any more lacking than they already did. It was honesty that he valued; he had always wished himself to be truly honest, and always feared that he was not.”

– Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah

“He hadn’t yet grasped this simple fact of human relations – the more readily you give, the more readily it will be taken from you as what you owe.”

– Joyce Carol Oates, “Run Kiss Daddy,” Black Dahlia and White Rose

“Gravity is about motion, weight, resistance, force, the most primary experience after all the touches on our skin, of being corporeal. And so it may be that gravity is a sweet taste of mortality and our strength to resist it, a luxuriating in the pull of the earth and the pull of muscles against it, in the momentum the two create, and in how close you can cut it.”

– Rebecca Solnit, “The Arrowheads,” A Field Guide to Getting Lost

“Lost really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing. There are objects and people that disappear from your sight or knowledge or possession. You still know where you are. Or you get lost, in which case the world has become large than your knowledge of it. Either way, there is a loss of control… And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”

– Rebecca Solnit, “Open Door,” A Field Guide to Getting Lost

“To know a place is to become familiar; to know it better is for it to become strange again. Not novel in the easy way of the new, but strange in a deep, disturbing way that does not dissipate, an unsettling revelation of what should have always been known, a revelation that implicates its belated discoverers.”

– Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams