My novel Necessary Errors, which will come out in August from Penguin, got an early positive review yesterday from Library Journal. The reviewer, Travis Fristoe, calls the plot “compelling,” the “nuance and dialog . . . an observational wonder,” and the book as a whole “a pleasure to navigate with its large, likable cast.” You have to be a subscriber to read the whole review, but some is visible even without a subscription.
In “Playing for All Kinds of Possibilities,” a very fun science article in yesterday’s New York Times, reporter David Dobbs describes how four-year-olds easily beat grown-ups at Blickets, a game invented by child psychologists Alison Gopnik and David Sobel. There seem to have been many versions of Blickets over the years, each designed to ferret out a different nuance of children’s understanding of the world, but in his article Dobbs is describing two that he calls “or” and “and”:
The “or” version is easier: When a blicket is placed atop the machine, it will light the machine up whether placed there by itself or with other pieces. It is either a blicket or it isn’t; it doesn’t depend on the presence of any other object.
In the “and” trial, however, a blicket reveals its blicketness only if both it and another blicket are placed on the machine.
Adults are usually stumped by the “and” version, but it gives children no trouble. Researchers believe that children succeed because they aren’t constrained by “prior biases.” Children don’t have such biases because they simply don’t know much about the world yet, and in their effort to understand, they’re willing to try out all kinds of wild ideas. As they age, they learn that some kinds of hypotheses are less commonly successful than others, and they become less willing to risk belief in these low-probability hypotheses. They grow up to be adults who lose at Blickets. They learn, Dobbs writes, that “‘or’ rules apply far more often in actual life, when a thing’s essence seldom depends on another object’s presence.”
This last claim stuck in my head, and this morning I realized why: I’m not sure it’s true, at least not about a very important category of thing, namely, people. Suppose, instead of playing Blickets with a rectangle, a triangle, and a bridge, we play Lovers with Rilke, Lou, and Gumby. And suppose, instead of placing clay tokens on top of a Blicket Detector, we play the game by leaving our three contestants alone in a room in pairs, to see if they happen to get busy. Rilke + Gumby = nothing. Lou + Gumby = also a blank. But Rilke + Lou = sonnets! Even adults are able to understand that these facts reveal that Rilke and Lou are Lovers, and that Gumby isn’t.
In the psychology experiment, the children were instructed that “the ones that are blickets have blicketness inside,” a somewhat confusing thing to say, given that the property of blicketness is completely fictional and doesn’t correspond to shape, color, weight, or any other physical trait. But adults are able to overcome a similar red herring, in the form of a word for the (also perhaps fictional) essence that qualifies a person as a Lover, namely, love.
As near as I can figure it, any mutually defined, nonhierarchical relationship between people operates in the real world by the same logic as the “and” version of Blickets. You can play Brothers, for example, with Henry James, William James, and William Dean Howells. You can play Rivals with Henry James, William Dean Howells, and Saint Francis of Assisi. You can play Friends with Emerson, Thoreau, and Jefferson Davis. (Note that for all these relationships, we have words for the relevant essence: brotherhood, rivalry, and friendship.)
None of this may matter for Gopnik and Sobel’s conclusion, because it doesn’t alter their finding that children are more willing to try out an unlikely hypothesis about clay triangles than adults are. But I’m not convinced that what children learn when they grow up is that “or” rules apply more often in real life than “and” rules do. It may be that they learn merely that “and” rules tend to be limited to human relationships.
Or it may be that they learn that grown-ups aren’t supposed to think of their toys as living creatures with thoughts and emotions . . .
Over at Slate, I have an essay about the existential pleasures of filing taxes as a gay married couple.
In my essay “Melville’s Secrets,” I offer an interpretation of a famous passage in Moby-Dick about sperm-squeezing, which concludes with a vision of “long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermaceti.” Melville scholar Scott Norsworthy has made a couple of discoveries that he generously describes as a “footnote” to my essay: It transpires that there’s another angel with a jar in Melville’s late prose-poem combination “Under the Rose,” and that, what’s more, both jar-carrying angels may be allusions to a Christianized star-map first published in 1660 by Andreas Cellarius. Norsworthy further wonders whether the row of asterisks that follow the sperm-squeezing passage are meant to suggest a constellation.
With toothpicks and Scotch tape, I have redesigned this blog. The inciting force was a notification from my old webhost, Typepad, that I had used up my allotment of categories. Three hundred categories I had been given, and no more. I had squandered them on Elizabeth Bowen, psychoanalysis, anarchism, and habeas corpus, and if now I wanted a category for Charles Williams, tough.
I sulked. I googled. And found myself gazing wistfully at the pastures over at WordPress.org, where yeomen and lasses seemed to frolic carelessly amid flocks and flocks of categories, all gamboling happily together. I seemed to hear them singing of how easy and intuitive their lives were. They idled. They drank from their flagons. They uploaded to folders with natural-language names.
It was a lie, reader. It was all a lie. The easy and intuitive part, anyway. WordPress.com may be user-friendly—I don’t know, I didn’t try it—but man, WordPress.org . . . Do not move your blog to WordPress.org unless you are a compulsive with the capacity to inhale a zeppelin’s volume of techy hot air. I stayed up till 2am every night for a straight week, staring slack-jawed and glassy-eyed at the screen. I made no progress in my Trollope novel. I didn’t read anyone’s galleys. To think that just a week ago I didn’t know what “php” was. I still don’t, really. Do the letters stand for something? But now I know how to child a theme. Now I can induce a firebug to inspect a “css.” After such knowledge, . . . I still can’t figure out how to enqueue a script, and as a result, my gloss of Wyatt’s “They flee from me” won’t unpack itself here at the new site. (For another week or so, you will still be able to see how it’s supposed to work at the old Typepad site, which I haven’t unplugged quite yet. Seriously, if anyone knows how or where to install a Jquery script in WordPress, get in touch. Should it be part of a “php”?)
Hope you like the new design. If something isn’t working, let me know. In a nice way. The idea behind it is that the easiest sort of thing to read is a tall, fairly narrow column. In order to make the central column as tall as possible, there’s no banner or menu across the top of this blog. To minimize distraction, clutter has been reduced in the sidebars, and the date, category, and author of a post has been made tiny and gray. The badge in the upper-left-hand corner with the blog’s title was hand-lettered in synthetic scrimshaw by a grizzled sailor locally sourced from a wharf.
At the back of my mind, during this ordeal, was the question: Why? While researching new web hosts before the transfer, I noticed, dispiritingly, that a fair number of blog redesigns are followed in short order by blog death. Redesign, in other words, seems in many cases to be a symptom of the propietor’s waning interest. Let’s prop the little monster up one more time and paint a happy face on it. Then, a week later: Let’s just shoot it. Like human civilizations, blogs do not last forever. And it turns out that while I was entrammeled in renewing the code of this one, I failed to observe its tenth anniversary. I first posted on Steamboats Are Ruining Everything on 29 March 2003. About errata, of course. Good god.
So what is a blog for? Four years ago, as an introduction to a print-on-demand anthology of this blog’s posts, I explained that I came to blogging fairly late—in fact, probably too late to take full advantage of its fluidity. I wasn’t hoping to break into print. My problem was that I had a toehold in print, which I was anxious about losing:
The quandary: If I wanted to communicate an important discovery, shouldn’t I write it up formally, either for money (i.e., journalism) or prestige (scholarship)? If a discovery wasn’t worth these rewards, was a casual communication of it worth risking my reputation, such as it was, for accuracy and deliberation? Though I had chosen not to pursue a career in academia, I had earned a Ph.D. in 1999 and was saddled with scholarship’s neuroses as well as journalism’s. To speculate beyond one’s area of expertise, based on no more than intuition and a few pieces of evidence, which happened to be new to oneself but might not be to specialists—wasn’t that a recipe for broadcasting one’s ignorance? And at the pit of my stomach, as I contemplated my efforts to make a living as a freelancer, lay another question: Would my editors continue to buy the cow if I was dispensing the milk for free on my blog?
Still good questions! Though not good enough to deter me from the pleasure of seeing myself type, evidently. I did discover a new use for a blog last year. It turns out that a blog can be a pretty good way to draw attention to a matter of urgency and public importance and to relay information about it in detail. But I have had to bench myself and let others carry that particular banner, and anyway, civic alarm is somewhat to one side of the puzzle that a blog poses to a writer.
A few years ago, print magazines complicated the puzzle by starting blogs of their own. I became inveigled when editors at the Paris Review invited me to send the occasional post their way. An odd state of affairs. They were offering a little money, but so little that a writer with any economic sense would have politely declined. My trouble was that I didn’t have any economic sense and was writing these posts for nothing already. I had then recently written one about the movie Avatar, for example, that had been reprinted on n+1′s blog and quoted by Daniel Mendelsohn in the New York Review of Books. That was fun. Should I stop? Why? So I started sending posts about movies to the Paris Review from time to time. Later I sent posts about other topics, and later still, I also started sending them to the New Yorker.
I can’t tell you how confusing this all is. Now, whenever I write something for my own blog, I can’t help but wonder whether I should send it somewhere else before hitting the Publish button. Pro: Cash. Con: Waiting. Am I an impatient person or a greedy one? And what if they say no? Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, after all, has always been very indulgent of me, editorially; very broad-minded. One’s amateurism has been a bit tampered with. Guilt colors one’s thinking, as guilt usually does when writing and money meet. One ought to be selling one’s wares for as much as the market will bear if it is in good faith that one has declared to the IRS year after year that writing is a profession not a hobby. In which spirit, of course, one should probably not be writing blog posts at all. But one can’t let capitalism have all the fun.
Four months from now, Penguin will publish my first novel. Friends congratulate me that I already have a “web presence.” I do intend to exploit it, but I’m haunted by a koan that a fellow writer once shared with me: “Freelancing only leads to more freelancing.” What if web presence only leads to more web presence? It probably isn’t for nothing that the sale technicians of the internet, when referring to a website reader’s decision to make a purchase, use the heavy and difficult word conversion.
Is blogging no more than a thing-in-itself? Am I about to quit? For the tenth anniversary of Steamboats Are Ruining Everything, here’s to ambiguity. Here’s to going down with the ship.
Over at the New Yorker‘s Page-Turner blog, I write about stumbling across War in Heaven, a 1930 novel by Charles Williams about satanism, publishing, and the Holy Grail.
I’m pleased to introduce the cover to my forthcoming novel, Necessary Errors, which will be published by Penguin as a paperback original and an e-book in August. The cover is visible at the top of the right-hand column of this webpage—it’s the one in light blue. If you click on it, or if you direct your browser to necessaryerrors.com, you’ll be led to a webpage for the book, hosted on this blog, which reprints the advance praise that a few early readers have been kind enough to send along.
Also, for the very curious, below is what the jacket for the advance reader’s copy looks like. It has what are known as French flaps, as the finished book will—though the finished book will look slightly different in other respects.
This is a bit after the fact, but for the sake of completeness in self-archiving, here’s my appearance on 30 January 2013 on WBUR’s “On Point with Tom Ashbrook.” The show was about what it’s like to be gay in America today, and I was one of those playing the role of native informant.
I review James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked in the 4 March 2013 issue of The Nation.