Benu

For my birthday, my mother came to visit me in San Francisco. She's quite the connoisseur of food - or, more properly said, a card carrying member of the overly ambitious fine dining club, if such a thing actually exists - and wanted to take me out for a memorable experience.

While I'm always, invariably, intrigued by new adventures, I don't consider myself someone who particularly enjoys lengthy, elaborate, culinary escapades. If offered the choice, and keep in mind it was my birthday, I normally don't partake in such feasts. The extravagance usually overwhelms my infrequent desire to challenge my palette. 

My take-away from the experience, however, was ineradicably positive. From the moment we walked onto the property, the care and meticulousness felt in the courtyard, let alone the atmosphere and ambiance of the tables, was indicative of a level of passion and attention to detail far removed from the pitfalls of ostentatiousness.

Everything, and I literally mean everything, was taken into consideration: the menu, the music, the plates, the water glass, the utensils, the temperature, the wait staff, the the paint, the hand soap - every single detail was a perfectly curated and intricately designed experience. It wasn't pretentiousness, it was something else.

I remember cautiously, nervously, rather awkwardly, taking my new iPhone out of my pocket to set it on the seemingly handcrafted, wooden table. I looked around the room, which wasn't stale, but rather, austerely honest in its posture towards its customers: this is the best dining experience you will ever have, it seemed to beckoned.

What I was drawn to, and what continues to captivate me, was the minimalistic nature of the bounteousness of the environment. Not only was it used to optimize the nourishment and intoxication of the cuisine, but it was also used to orchestrate, or more profoundly, set the tone for the creation of an event.  

I realized, as I tried to absorb the experience, and later reflect upon the understated nature of my enjoyment, just how easy it is to participate in the democratic character of a well-designed experience. You're carried away by the subtleties of quality. The iPhone, for instance, didn't feel out of place, in this insanely-well-crafted-experience. 

If only the price was more reflective of the catholicism. 

Thank you, Mom.

 

Ai Wei Wei

We recently visited the art exhibit by Ai Wei Wei on Alcatraz. It's aptly entitled @large, and is comprised of a series of provocative installations. Neither one of us had previously visited the island, save for a few unfortunate childhood social-indoctrination-class trip memories, and we were uncertain how impactful the experience would feel, especially considering that it is now primarily a tourist destination.

Immediately, however, our apprehensions were displaced, and we were plunged into the many layers of the island. Not only were we immersed in the perfectly crafted and expertly executed stories of the prison( no pun intended), we also succumbed to the natural beauty of this National Park, resplendent with wildlife and absolutely incredible views of the city. We learned on our tour of this historic site that the inmates used to press their ears, ever so longingly, to the bars, in the hopes that they could hear a song or two, wafting in on the whitecaps, off the gentle shores. 

Almost a mixture of the bravado of Andy Warhol (at the MOMA) or Banksy (unbeknownst in Central Park), Ai Wei Wei completely captivates the spirited and unsheltered imaginations of those who choose to visit the exhibit. The installation in the New Industries Building, in particular, was absolutely spectacular. It's as politically charged as it is artistically motivated, and one can't help put peer across the minutia of the Lego pieces, enchanted to think bigger.

 

Recommendations

© The wonderful work and worlds of Jule Julien.

© The wonderful work and worlds of Jule Julien.

Not unlike dreams, the sharing of books can be personal, intimate, even revelatory. Sometimes you want to share them with the world. Other times, you want to pretend they never left the dark, wondrous imagination of your nightstand. 

It’s hard to know exactly what to share. Or, with whom.

When someone you admire or trust, or want to learn from, recommends a book, or an author, or a subject, you instantly find yourself endeared to that new terrain. You try to track it down. Learn from it. Follow its curves. You’re enchanted by the labyrinth, and the promise of the surreptitious landscape. The unfamiliarity draws you near. 

Secrets keep well those who empower them with their desires.

In seemingly unexplainable, mysterious ways, the panorama summons you forth, rough-hewn and precipitous. You listen. You survey the craggy meadow from above, trying to apply your honeyed, honeymoon eyes. You take notes. You’re attentive to the nuances, as a new set of possibilities present themselves for you to navigate. 

Everything is as if for the first time.

Recommendations arrive like storks in the night. You’re not sure if they’re fairytales to be believed. You conceive of the risks involved with a new enterprise: the feasibility, the practicality, the chance occurrence. Then, as if unexpectedly, everything else slowly fades away. You follow the myth into the moonlight.  

It’s just you and the recommendation.

The joy of exploration, and everything that accompanies those loud, embolden sirens of happiness, surpasses everything. Desire, to be sure, trumps satisfaction, every, single time. You are contented in the recommendation, as you try to figure out if it suits you just so. The right recommendation can yield a life-long friend.

Recommendations can deliver us from the abyss.

Whether the recommendation was betrothed, or you discovered it on your own, the happenstance becomes your songline. There’s a sense of excitement. You’re passionate about the unexamined depths of expansion, incorporation and, maybe, if you’re lucky, maturation. 

Recommendations provide encounters.

Yet, what does this relationship entail? Not only what comprises a recommendation - the etiology, so to speak - but also, how they are delivered, how they affect us, and ultimately, how they are archived. What exactly is in the nature of a recommendation?Is it purely a selfless act of generosity, or a form of selfish identification with another? Or, perhaps more basically, a need to share with the world?

There’s a lot at play in a simple recommendation.

In a very deep-rooted, almost idiosyncratic, individualized way, learning itself is but a curation of recommendations. I say ‘but’, yet, it’s so much more than that. It’s the way your lover recites Sartre in a cafe, or how your favorite professor lends you his personal copy of Nietzsche, or a stranger on Twitter, in a moment of strength, confesses their secret love for The Story of the Eye.

Recommendations participate in the world.

 

One Thousand Tears or More

There’s an entire history of books consumed by flames. Our memories lay purchase to their cultures, and we become witness to those who endured the endless fires. For some, the flames can still be seen, even if they are but mere flickers, unsteady bursts of light suspended by time, trapped in the distance. 

Less is known about how many books actually met a watery fate, as opposed to an incendiary celebration. Water is somehow less symbolic than fire. Perhaps it’s more tepid or languid, or even calming. It has a wistful, unassuming smile, one that is always ready to seduce, to lure us into thinking its powers are only those of enchantment, when it’s really concerned with an immemorial embrace. 

We wince at the horror, as we read about the Library of Alexandria. Its constant destruction pains us still, especially in the context of what it means today. We cringe to learn that Emperor Qin ordered all philosophy books burned, and the authors who wrote them mercilessly buried alive. Or, when Sartre shares the maladies of the imprisoned Jean Genet, our soul itself is seared by the injustice and fervor of the flames. 

There’s something magical and powerful about books. What they set free, what they contain. 

What the prison guard took from Genet, as he burned what would later become his autobiography, Our Lady of the Flowers, was not just his hope for release, or the promise of recompense. No. He attempted to take his humanity. As Heinrich Heine famously said, “Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned.” Whether it happens all at once, or over the slow, methodical course of many years, it eventually happens. It takes time, patience and cleverness, to amass the tinders needed to sustain an everlasting fire. Yet, there’s an inevitability to it.  

Lest we forget, the community which built the Library of Alexandria into a center for worldly scholarship, that bolstered its very occasion, is the same that watched it burn. While Emperor Qin administered the orders, they were almost certainly carried out by someone like us. Wasn’t that Arendt’s exact point about Eichmann? We are all complicit in the story of our lives.

We can almost, each in our own way, see the papyrus as it incinerates, forever serving as a beacon for an eternal, creative struggle, and a calling card for more sinister sides. There will always be those who try to oppress that which needs to be heard. We envision an amber colored chorus of ruination, as scrolls hurriedly ascend, desperately trying to escape their impending annihilation, recklessly and courageously grasping for the life that birthed them.

If we listen, with just the right amount of intensity, with our ears pressed to the wind, we can hear their faint, smothered screams. Those of the books, and those of the steady hands who wrote them into existence. After all, it takes great strength to commit an idea to the world, and even greater strength to stand by the convictions of the ink-stained words, (especially as time passes, and they become harder to decipher, and easier to smear). There’s a reason that the Origin of Species remained in Darwin’s desk for all those years. It’s easy to turn a sorcerer into a hero as they’re doused and mounted to a stake. It’s harder, to be sure, to take solidarity in the struggle, when it’s your own flesh that starts to burn. 

Of course, there are stories of books that famously escaped such undying infernos. One only need remember Max Brod and his abiding betrayal. Oh, the treachery! Here’s Kafka: “My last request: Everything I leave behind…in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others’), sketches and so on, to be burned unread.” As his words take hold and start to register, we are reminded that most of us would be honored, if we had anything worthy of such a breach of trust. I suppose there’s always hope. 

With hope comes a sense of responsibility. 

After a recent weekend excursion, more of an outstanding family-obligation, we returned home to find our unfinished lower level completely flooded. Standing atop the staircase, peering down into the watery basement below, we unexpectedly observed three inches of water, standing just so, glimmering, shyly, for our attention. 

In a way, it was as if the pool of water, as it slowly mounted the abyss, had solicited our tears - much to the chagrin of our affection for the adventures of Alice in Wonderland. We wondered how many tears had participated, knowingly or not, in libricide. 

Quickly, as we took inventory of the contents, we were brought down to size, discovering our collection of books, completely immersed in the seemingly innocuous, rising water. The cardboard boxes, neatly, alphabetically stacked against the concrete wall, twenty x three, or maybe more, steadily started to succumb to the weight of the water. Hurriedly, we waded through the increasingly untenable basement, rushing to save the unaffected books, those carefully positioned atop the sturdy boxes below.

After scaling the stairs with the rescues in hand, we anxiously made our way to the bottom layer, to those boxes most heavily affected, having absorbed the burden of the water. As we  opened the shrinking boxes, pealing off the top few layers of salvageable books, we apprehensively made our way to the list of authors, whose titles were now soiled beyond respite. 

We recited aloud the names of those who never deserved their books to meet such lack of providence, perhaps despite their intentions to the contrary. 

“Nabakov, Miller, Perec…”

“All of Nabakov? Even Lolita?”

“Yes, even Lolita.”

Muttering to the cadence of the work:

“The…light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”

I distinctly remember an adjunct philosophy professor at Lehigh University, where I completed my undergraduate, who had returned home from a day of lectures to find his second-floor apartment ablaze. His only real concern, as he later relayed, was the state of his books. Had they all been burned? Could any of them be saved? Understandably, he was beside himself, watching his life’s work catch fire. 

In an act of resistance, he showed up the very next day with a seared copy of Illuminations in his hands. He hadn’t slept, let alone showered or changed his clothes. Soot was everywhere. In his hair, on his briefcase. As he carefully turned the page, trying to stay focused on the task at hand, which if I remember correctly was teaching the "Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", ash literally drifted off into the air. 

What does it mean to lose a book? Or a library? It’s not just the physical nature of the book, the parchment and the ink. It’s not just the efforts of the author, and the import of their worlds. It’s the margins too. The underlines and circles, the points of emphasis. The notes and the conversations with the author. Even the disagreements. Those are important too. 

We covet libraries, just as well as books, not just for their contents, but also for their promises. Books are memories - of places purchased, of journeys discovered, of romances consummated. They’re grand adventures that we can constantly relive. They also help us to make sense of things. Books order memories - of lived dreams, of forgotten ideas, of times yet to come.

They were in my care, these books. They were entrusted to me, as much as to history. It was my responsibility. My fidelity. There’s a sense in which I feel like I betrayed them. That I disturbed a certain order of the world-memory. 

At the Library of Alexandria, it is reported that there were “books of the ships” which were sorted, cataloged, and then shelved. These books had arrived through the ports, having made the voyage across the Mediterranean sea, presumably from Greece. They had found themselves inscribed amongst a new collective. When the Library of Alexandria was destroyed, those books weren’t separated, or set out to sea. They burned with the rest of them. 

Of course, we would much prefer to share our notes on how to organize a collection of books, or engage with Walter Benjamin’s excellent essay on unpacking a library. Instead, we find ourselves, reluctantly, preparing to write a eulogy to our library. Or, rather, a confession to our heroes and the books they shared with the world, despite the fires they may have incited. 

It’s the one letter we never expected to have to write. 


Nicely Said

I’ve always been a better reader than writer. I’m not exactly sure why. It may be a matter of practice, or confidence, but I think it’s likely something else entirely. 

Different writers teach us different things. 

Nietzsche taught us to slow down; Whitman how to speed up; and, we’re still trying to learn how to breath from the bewilderingly insouciant and unsurprisingly fresh Gertrude Stein. Yet, each in their own way, they taught us the same thing: how to read, how to quickly navigate their work, on their own terrain.

As readers, we can wholeheartedly identify with their ambition. They’ve showed us the world anew, through a breadth of mismatched, varying perspectives. Of course, that doesn’t mean that we’ve always followed their advice, or felt the need to incorporate their philosophy, but they’ve set us on a different course than the one we were on before. They are united in that, and perhaps that alone. 

There’s so much in the world to absorb. 

As writers, when we start to write, we somehow have the tendency to feel anxious. We’re disturbed by the idea that what we have to say won’t measure up to our own expectations, or the world won’t receive it the way we intended it to be heard. In a way, our fear is that our contribution will take away from the power and pleasure of the reader - namely, the collective ‘us’. The world, to be blunt, will absorb us and our heroes will feel betrayed.

What we often forget is that our heroes had teachers too. 

Maybe the humor of Tristram Shandy inspired Nietzsche to pursue the limits of the aphorism. Maybe his extensive travels through the frontiers of Emerson brought Whitman to have the courage to find his own cadence. Further still, maybe William James set Gertrude Stein out on a course to find her own stream of invention.

Not to be unkind to our heroes, because they’ve taught us so much, but they haven’t really taught us how to write. They may have provided us with a framework by which to start our exploration, and that’s important too, but they haven’t outlined specific ways in which we can teach ourselves to become better writers. Maybe our lion hearts intentionally left that task to someone else. Someone more patient, with a different set of skills and compassions. 

For the first time, I feel like I’ve finally found a teacher who can help me become a better writer. Well, actually, two. Nicole Fenton and Kate Kiefer Lee. They’ve just written a book, aptly entitled Nicely Said, which aims to make writing more accessible, meaningful and important. While the audience is clearly defined, like all great books, I think it’s for everyone. It brings great attention to the details we so often overlook by helping us organize our appreciation of the world. 

The standard line on how to become a better writer often goes something like this: you simply need to read more carefully, widely and intently. Look for cracks, nuances and tips. That’s how to ensure you learn something new and become a better writer. This technique, to be sure, is not the same as trying to "get unstuck" while you are writing.

Certainly, reading is linked to writing in inextricably beautiful ways. One of the ways in which it is severed, however, is that it is never complete. We never write, in advance, for an audience that we know exists. Writing, the true power of the written word, happens before the event itself unfolds. Before, as Deleuze writes, ‘the people exist’. 

While reading may help us articulate our thoughts, it can’t discern how our contributions to the world will turn out. Writing allows the reader to coalesce around that which is yet to come. Perhaps that’s the irony of why so many of us prefer reading, over writing, and why we find writing so arduous, and so unorganized. 

I believe, Nicely Said has opened the pathways for a new type of writer. One that is inspired and committed to contribute to the world in yet to be determined ways. Above all else, the book inspires us, in an appropriately timely fashion, to develop the confidence we need to structure our thoughts in a world full of heroes. 

P.S. I hope I don’t disappoint my new teachers with too many mistakes.