David Foster Wallace

Its protagonist's self-diagnosed "disease" – a blend of grandiosity and self-contempt, of rage and cowardice, of ideological fervor and a self-conscious inability to act on his convictions: his whole paradoxical and self negating character – makes him a universal figure in whom we can all see parts of ourselves, the same kind of ageless literary archetype as Ajax or Hamlet.
From "Joseph Frank's Dostoevsky" in Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, Back Bay Books, New York, 2006.

Editorial: I just finished reading Consider the Lobster, a collection of essays by DFW. He caught my attention when I first read his 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College. The point he makes there (see the beauty, it is everywhere) lingers in my mind. For example I almost always remember it when I'm in the checkout line at a busy market. The two points he makes here are likewise thoughtful. One is mostly a common literary observation, namely that we get to see ourselves in compelling, universal stories and characters. How true! The other point (which is really just an observation) is more poignant, namely that humans can exist with enormous contradictions, that they can feel opposite emotions and act on either in an instance. Also so true, but unsettling at the same time.

David Foster Wallace

To be a mass tourist, for me, is to becmoe a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience, It is to impose yourself on places that in all non-economic ways would be better, realer, without you. It is, in lines and gridlock and transaction after transaction, to confront a dimension of yourself that is as inescapable as it is painful: As a tourist, you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.
From "Consider the Lobster" in Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, Back Bay Books, New York, 2006.

Editorial: I read this essay in Venice over the New Year. Enough said.

David Foster Wallace

The mistake here lies in both sides’ assumption that the real motives for redistributing wealth are charitable or unselfish. The conservatives’ mistake (if it is a mistake) is wholly conceptual, but for the Left the assumption is also a serious tactical error. Progressive liberals seem incapable of stating the obvious truth: that we who are well off should be willing to share more of what we have with poor people not for the poor people’s sake but for our own; i.e., we should share what we have in order to become less narrow and frightened and lonely and self-centered people.
From "Authority and American Usage" in
Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, Back Bay Books, New York, 2006.

David Foster Wallace

This argument is not the barrel of drugged trout that Methodological Descriptivism was, but it's still vulnerable to some objections.
From "Authority and American Usage" in Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, Back Bay Books, New York, 2006.

Editorial: barrel of drugged trout. Brilliant.

David Foster Wallace

...and it's now pretty much universally accepted that (a) meaning is inseparable from some act of interpretation and (b) an act of interpretation is always somewhat biased, i.e., informed by the interpreter's particular ideology.
From "Authority and American Usage" in Consider the Lobster: And Other Essays, Back Bay Books, New York, 2006.


Ted Hughes

My Uncle Dan
by Ted Hughes

My Uncle Dan's an inventor, you may think that's very fine.
You may wish he was your Uncle instead of being mine—
If he wanted he could make a watch that bounces when it drops,
He could make a helicopter out of string and bottle tops
Or any really useful thing you can't get in the shops.
    But Uncle Dan has other ideas:
    The bottomless glass for ginger beers,
    The toothless saw that's safe for the tree,
    A special word for a spelling bee
    (Like Lionocerangoutangadder),
    Or the roll-uppable rubber ladder,
    The mystery pie that bites when it's bit—
    My Uncle Dan invented it.
My Uncle Dan sits in his den inventing night and day.
His eyes peer from his hair and beard like mice from a load of hay.
And does he make the shoes that will go walks without your feet?
A shrinker to shrink instantly the elephants you meet?
A carver that just carves from the air steaks cooked and ready to eat?
    No, no, he has other intentions—
    Only perfectly useless inventions:
    Glassless windows (they never break),
    A medicine to cure the earthquake,
    The unspillable screwed-down cup,
    The stairs that go neither down nor up,
    The door you simply paint on a wall—
    Uncle Dan invented them all.

From "Collected Poems for Children" by Ted Hughes (2005).


Settlement & Landscapes III

1. Homestead, Yunnan Province, China
2. Penon de Alhucemas, Morocco
3. Rheris, Morocco
4. Munich, Germany
5. Saulsville Township, South Africa
6. Shibam, Yemen

Editorial: See Settlement & Landscapes I.

Settlement & Landscapes II

1. Kye Monastery, Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, India
2. Houston, Texas
3. Village, Niger, Africa
4. Markham Suburbs, Ontario
5. Monteriggioni, Siena Province, Italy
6. Las Vegas, Nevada

Editorial: See Settlement & Landscapes I.


Settlement & Landscapes I

1. Kreuzberg (Berlin), Germany
2. Complexo do Alemão, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
3. Village, Farah Province, Afghanistan
4. African Village
5. Ganvié, Benin
6. New York, New York

Editorial: In my work I study the connections between past human events and features of the natural and built environment. Part of this study involves looking at human settlement on diverse landscapes, which is why I collect these aerial images (if you happen to stumble on a fine example please send it along). The theory is quite simple and almost blasé in today’s scholarship: the relationship between human life and physical space is dialectical as the two change and develop through constant interaction (i.e., through a dialogue). If you have any doubt whether the space that contains us (concrete/wooded, flat/inclined, cramped/spacious, etc.) alters or affects our behavior in the same way that our actions (building, farming, digging, moving, etc.) transform landscapes, just take a look at these images. Think how different you would be-- how different your thoughts, beliefs and dreams would be-- if you lived in these places. Clearly I could make the same point about people's social milieu influencing who they are and what they do. In fact, to understand an event and its actors you need to think about both worlds—the material and the social—as well as a few others that I can wrestle with later (ideological and physiological being the big two). In the meantime enjoy these views from around the world.


Francisco de Goya

Perro Enterrado en Arena (1819-1823)
Museo Nacional del Prado

Fernando Botero

Still Life with Watermelon (1974)
The University of Texas at Austin, College of Fine Arts
oil on canvas

Jacopo de' Barbari

Still Life with Partridge, Steel Gauntlets and Cross-Bow Bolts (1504)
Alte Pinakothek (Munich, Germany)
painting on limewood panel

Editorial: I have had the pleasure of seeing this in person. Whao. Every time I stare at this painting my mind heats up a few degrees. How can items so obviously violent be rendered in such peace and elegance?


African Proverb

Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt will always glorify the hunters.

It may help to accept as axiomatic the notion that history is a worthwhile pursuit that produces a useful product. I can wrestle with the fairness of this statement later. For now I consider the idea that history is written by the victors. Other posts that dance around this topic include quotes from Orwell, Faulkner, and Kundera.
           Do a nation and its writers create a history that justifies the rightness of its actions? Well, after smashing through Tunisia and creaming their enemies the Romans could (and did) portray the defeated Carthaginians as miserable barbarians. We don't know how the poor (dead) historians in Carthage would have told the story. We see the same imbalance in the narratives about the colonization of the Americas, where European destruction and domination were repackaged as discovery. As we have been taught by Subaltern Studies this does not mean there are not alternative histories that undercut the dominant history, for example feminist history, class history, ethnic history, etc. The joy in looking at this closely is in being able to suss out the public and private mechanisms that serve the purpose of promoting the central history and burying the marginal histories: nationally standardized systems of education, production of state ceremonies and pastimes, state systems of accounting and archiving, and ginormous news agencies. Keep that in mind next time you look at a high school curriculum, watch a helicopter land at the White House, sit down for Thanksgiving, file your taxes, or read a newspaper. It is all quite deliberate!


Alex España

Today I need to do three things. Fill out my planner. Do what my planner says. Find my planner.


Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht.

Man plans, God laughs.
Yiddish Proverb

Editorial: Think of all the ludicrous demands made by the fickle gods of ancient mythology: sacrifice this virgin, build a boat, fetch me that animal, if you do this you live and if you don’t you die. On and on. I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about how some events happen in ways that are surprising and even poetic, as if the gods are indeed crazy and indeed have a wicked sense of humor. The impatient man just misses the bus. The composer loses his hearing. The marathoner dies of heart disease. But how is it that the alternative to the gods giving you exactly what you cannot handle is equally vexing: when the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers. This means the gods have us suffering coming and going-- when they don’t and do grant our wishes. The fact that both scenarios are coincidences means little to people who tend to fault or credit the divine for everything that occurs in patterns. Either way I certainly enjoy the proverbs and clichés that spring up around their explanation, especially Mentsch tracht, Gott lacht!


Diego Velázquez

Portrait of Innocent X (1650)
Galleria Doria Pamphilj, Roma
Oil on canvas


Nana korobi, ya oki.

Fall seven times - rise eight.
Japanese Proverb

Editorial: The first time I heard this proverb it was mangled in the mouth of a young man who had made a series of colossally poor decisions that confounded common sense. The last in the series was to lie ceaselessly even when he knew that everyone else was on to him. Because the truth seemed destined to go with him to the grave I was thoroughly surprised when he eventually opened up. I asked him why he came around and his reply was the mangled proverb. The gist, however, was straight and true, and profoundly simple: you get up from the place where you fall. Nana korobi, ya oki. Fall seven times - rise eight. The Chinese have a proverb that makes essentially the same point: Failure is not falling down but refusing to get up. Here’s the sentiment told another way: When you reach the point where you just can’t give any more of your time or effort, stand very still. Then take one more step. (thanks, elsah cort).


Woody Allen

Eighty percent of success is showing up.
I first heard this quote from my brother-- thanks, apg.

Editorial: Every year towards the end of summer students ask me for the best advice I have for success in college, and I offer this quote. I also share these words with my friends, and in my own life I see their veracity everywhere. I’m curious why Woody picked '80', although his reason might be as simple as Douglas Adams’s explanation for why he offered '42' as the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything. Alternatively Woody probably knows about the Pareto Principle (or the 80-20 Rule). Whatever the reason, I increasingly feel that showing up just might be the second truism I can trust on a regular basis; the first is here.


Kay Ryan

Fool's Errand
by Kay Ryan

A thing
cannot be
enough times:
this is the
rule of dogs
for whom there
are no fool’s
errands. To
loop out and
come back is
good all alone.
It’s gravy to
carry a ball
or a bone.

Appears in The New Yorker, August 10&17, 2009

Editorial: This poem evokes a childhood memory steeped in carefreeness. It goes something like this. My family had a trampoline growing up that I would jump on endlessly with my siblings, friends and neighbors. We called it the tramp. We also had a much-loved dog named Mimi who learned how to poke her head through the springs on the edge of the tramp while standing on her hind legs. She was a Springer Spaniel and she did this trick in order to spit out her tennis ball at our bouncing feet. One of us would then dive for the ball, jump as high as we could on the tramp, and hurl the ball forever in whatever direction. Sometimes we would do that trick when you fake a throw one way and then hurl it the other while Mimi had her head turned. It didn’t matter to Mimi. She eventually always found the ball. We could throw it into the deepest bush, over the house, over the fence, over the fence and across the street, over the fence across the street and over the next fence, and on and on. (Why we led her across the busy street with our throws I’ll never know.) It occurs to me now reading Ryan’s poem that while it took Mimi all of ten seconds to execute her trick of depositing the ball through the springs on the tramp, it might have taken her ten or twenty minutes to find her ball buried deep in a hedge far away. I always imagined that she was seeking our approval by proudly retrieving the ball. But this poem gives me pause and makes me wonder whether Mimi considered us jumpers an inconvenient necessity. Maybe all we were to her was a means to looping out, and that her pride and joy was not the delivery, but the search and discovery.


Naguib Mahfouz

The darkness was thicker now and he could see nothing at all, not even the outlines of the tombs, as if nothing wished to be seen. He was slipping away into endless depths, not knowing either position, place, or purpose. As hard as he could, he tried to gain control of something, no matter what. To exert one last act of resistance. To capture one last recalcitrant memory. But finally, because he had to succumb, and not caring, he surrendered. Not caring at all now.
The Thief and the Dogs (1961)

Editorial: This passage describes a man’s last living moments. It strikes me as profound and nearly perfect. It also reminds me of the fitful, dreamless sleep that afflicts me when I am sick. But how could the living Mahfouz know about death? And why would it resonate with me, undead as I am? It seems good literature does this— it brings alien experiences, emotions and moments to unsuspecting readers.


Naguib Mahfouz

It occurred to him that habit is the root of laziness, boredom, and death, that habit had been responsible for his sufferings, the treachery, the ingratitude, and the waste of his life's hard toil.
The Thief and the Dogs (1961)

Joao Padua

Marta Mamani, an Aymara indigenous woman, hits a drive during her work break at La Paz Golf Club on November 26, 2008. Photo by Joao Padua (AFP/Getty Images). Source:


Anton Chekhov

If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there.
In 1889, Ilia Gurliand noted these words from a conversation with Chekhov (see Donald Rayfield, Anton Chekhov: A Life, New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1997, p.203). Chekhov repeated this point a number of times.


Charles Simic

The Toad
by Charles Simic

God never made a day as beautiful as today,
A neighbor was saying.
I sat in the shade after she left
Mulling that one over,
When a toad hopped out of the grass
And finding me harmless,
Hopped over my foot on his way to the pond.