Our family is currently devouring Tove Jansson‘s Moomin books and cartoons, which are resonating with all of the things we’re seeing happening in the world around us lately — timely, then, to come across this article from Aeon on how Jansson’s and Astrid Lundgren’s Pippi books were part of a Nordic postwar antidote to fascism and authoritarianism.
I knew about Jansson working with her mother as a cartoonist for the leftist magazine Garm, but the details about her relationship with her sculptor father makes it much more clear what’s up with the often-distant Moominpappa in the Moomin books:
This message of inclusion is all the more remarkable when we remember that, during the war years, Jansson’s family was every bit as divided as many are today. Her father, Viktor ‘Faffan’ Jansson, was an enthusiastic supporter of Nazi Germany, enraging his daughter with political views that she described as ‘hair-raising’, including open antisemitism. Meanwhile, Tove and her mother, Signe ‘Ham’ Hammersten-Jansson, were earning money drawing illustrations for an anti-Nazi, Left-wing magazine.
The strain this put on the family is transformed into Moominpappa’s absence. He has ‘[taken] off with the Hattifatteners’, ‘who are forever wandering restlessly from place to place in their aimless quest for nobody knows what’. Moominpappa later quietly omits his infatuation with this strange, mindless crowd when he writes the story of his life, which was the approach taken by many Finnish supporters of Nazi Germany. When Moominpappa’s memoirs are complete, there is nothing in them at all about his wayward years with the Hattifatteners, much to Snufkin’s puzzlement.
Dang, these books are good. Fun stories for our six-year-old, and good reminders about how to be a family for ourselves and the community. Looks like we’ll need to start in on the Pippi books sometime soon.
Jordan Mechner’s game development diaries from when he made the original Prince of Persia are a good read, and now available in what looks like a nicely illustrated hardback edition — he was a teenager when he released his first commercial game and roughly 20 when developing the even bigger hit Prince of Persia, and his diaries illuminate both the remarkable technical accomplishments he was able to pull off on the limited 1980s hardware but also the mind and outlook of a teenager diving into an increasingly commercial world.
I recently finished Jan Tschichold’s Treasury of Alphabets and Lettering (1952), an incredible gallery of historical typographic examples alongside acerbic and insightful commentary by Tschichold, and this passage about storefront signs has popped into my head whenever driving by any given strip mall:
In selecting a letter for a given task, beauty is not the only factor. The letter must also be appropriate to its purpose and surroundings. Most important, a distinction must be made between lettering that is to serve for a long period of time and lettering which is to serve only briefly. Frequently, we see lettering in architecture which, due to its flighty and cursive character, is suitable only for temporary and cheap signs. Many store front inscriptions, often executed in metal or neon lights, belong to the category of imitation brush lettering which is alien to their purpose. These are not only generally hard to read, but also often lack the spontaneous, fresh form which only a master can give them after long practice. They are lame, warped, and miserable. That which one is unprepared to do but insists on doing becomes trashy. And this trash despoils our cities today at every turn. Such pap-like brush lettering on our store fronts is out of place and poorly done. Store front lettering is an architecture, since it is a part of the building. It is destined for a long duration, often for decades, and should, therefore, always be correct, noble and beautiful. It is a waste of money to cast such pseudo brush lettering in expensive metal; it must be replaced in a few years as it becomes obsolete and visually offensive to everybody.
This kind of lettering is either the result of the client’s “design” or conceived by incompetents who should choose another profession.
Store and building signs are necessary, but they need not result in the evil they have become.
In 2003 Paul Ford wrote a rather nice endorsement for colophons:
Rogers’ book terminates with a tremendous 3-page colophon, which wonders aloud if it is not perhaps “the longest colophon on record.” I take this personally, as a challenge for some day in the future, a challenge to create a colophon that transcends all colophons, a colophon that not only mentions the fonts of choice, but describes the sensuous lilt of certain descenders, offering prayers for good linespacing and a hymn to the golden ratio—a colophon that compares the kerned nestling of the “a” against the “W” in “Water” to the cuddling Madonna and child, and describes not only the paper that holds the ink but explains how the exact proportions of the lowercase “q” were debated so avidly that there was a stabbing in the foundry.
It is time for a colophon that explains how thousands of arbitrary hieroglyphs, the product of cognitive processes and some writer’s yearnings, when arranged on the page, form a community of relationships, a living colony redolent in turn of monk’s robes, boiling lead, and the chemical funk of the Linotronic spitting out its tongue of film. Time for a colophon that explains how a page of a book is a tangent off the great expanding unified sphere of language, with monkey grunts at its core and Web sites in its mantle. A colophon that explains how the linear strings of characters which make up prose or poetry can be broken into lines and arranged into sensuous comforts that salve the most polar loneliness. A colophon so overwritten as to make David Foster Wallace look like Raymond Carver, and by its very overwrittenness, absolutely transcendent, as dense as osmium and so obsidian-opaque in its beauty as to deny any reader whose soul is not purified a glance into its mysteries—a colophon which cannot be seen by the uninitiated, but is instead delivered to the pure of page by angels with san-serif wings at the moment of death, providing them with the sacred knowledge necessary to ascend to typographic heaven, where the true letterforms of which our own are only shadows are made manifest and the books are written using the infinite alphabet of the language of God.
This tattooing had been the work of a departed prophet and seer of his island, who, by those hieroglyphic marks, had written out on his body a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth; so that Queequeg in his own proper person was a riddle to unfold; a wondrous work in one volume; but whose mysteries not even himself could read, though his own live heart beat against them; and these mysteries were therefore destined in the end to moulder away with the living parchment whereon they were inscribed, and so be unsolved to the last.
From the NY Times review of the updated 2011 “digital” edition of How to Win Friends and Influence People:
The following sentence, which appears on Page 80, is so inept that it may actually be an ancient curse and to read it more than three times aloud is to summon the cannibal undead: “Today’s biggest enemy of lasting influence is the sector of both personal and corporate musing that concerns itself with the art of creating impressions without consulting the science of need ascertainment.”
I don’t think they like the book’s modernized language.
I’ve never read this, can’t say I’ve seen the TV miniseries, and I know you shouldn’t judge a book by the cover, but this seems like a total non sequitur coming from the celebrated author of the iconoclastic His Dark Materials… What happened here?
I’ve been re-reading Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, one of my favorite books from when I was a kid, and it still holds up. I remember really enjoying it for its wit and wordplay (even if a lot of it whizzed over my head), but the point of the story, in which Milo learns about Wisdom (including false understandings of such) and the dangers lurking in the Mountains of Ignorance, resonates much more strongly as an adult.
“Because, my young friends,” he muttered sourly, “what could be more important than doing unimportant things? If you stop to do enough of them, you’ll never get to where you’re going.” He punctuated his last remark with a villainous laugh.
“Then you must―” gasped Milo.
“Quite correct!” he shrieked triumphantly. “I am the Terrible Trivium, demon of petty tasks and worthless jobs, ogre of wasted effort, and monster of habit.”
“But why do only unimportant things?” asked Milo, who suddenly remembered how much time he spent each day doing them.
“Think of all the trouble it saves,” the man explained, and his face looked as if he’d be grinning an evil grin―if he could grin at all. “If you only do the easy and useless jobs, you’ll never have to worry about the important ones which are so difficult. You just won’t have the time. For there’s always something to do to keep you from what you really should be doing…”
Awesome thing that I didn’t realize I had on my bookshelf: the Tom Lehrer sheet music songbook I’ve had since I was a kid was illustrated by cartoonist Ronald Searle. I must have been unfamiliar with Searle the last time I looked through this book — his scratchy style complements Lehrer’s acerbic wit nicely.
The whole book, “Too Many Songs By Tom Lehrer with not enough drawings by Ronald Searle”, is available for perusal on Scribd, in case you’re the sort that enjoys songs about masochism, the periodic table, bull fighting, nuclear annihilation, and Ivy League snobbery…
As always in such cases, there’s an interesting question whether this should be thought of as a superficial deviation from an underlyingly square rhythm, or rather as a different draw from a set of available polyrhythmic patterns. For some more discussion, see e.g. “Rock syncopation: Stress shifts or polyrhythms?”, 11/26/2007. Note in any case that the mixture of four-beat and three-beat (lyric) lines evokes the traditional English ballad meter, whatever we’re to make of the variations in alignment.
A copious plate of pasta arrived, with no sauce. Teller suddenly stabbed his palms with a fork and rummaged through the strands of linguine. When a bright red river surged from beneath the plain pasta, Teller stood up, dripping red palms outstretched. Voila! The thrillingly gruesome “Linguine a la Stigmata.” Waiters smiled, diners at nearby tables didn’t notice a thing, and the linguine was served to one and all. …
“Violence is what gives you real excitement,” [Penn] continued. “It’s what gives us the rage to live. Without violence, you don’t really have art. You have to have your Shakespeare, your Greek tragedies. Teller and I are both very pro-violence in the arts, but only in the arts. No one wants to go on a roller coaster that’s slow and flat.”
But does that include sticking a fork into your eye? Absolutely. “Nothing is more life affirming than doing this stuff and not being hurt,” Teller said. “It’s cool to be startled. You laugh, and that’s a social activity. There are repartees, and there is ramming a fork into your eye.”
The medium serves as a guide to what was going on in society at the time, he said: “Comics are very much a reflection of pop culture.” The law has long been a part of that, whether it’s Perry Mason grilling a witness or Denny Crane blustering.
In the exhibition, many of the images have the power to delight, especially for those who collected comics in their youth. If your day job happens to be anything like mine — I’m the national legal correspondent for this newspaper — you will certainly notice that the comic book creators’ knowledge of law had a few gaps. For starters, the little girl in that Superman cover would have been seated in the witness chair, if in fact taking sworn testimony from a minor in open court was allowed in the Metropolis jurisdiction, and Superman would have been elsewhere in the courtroom. But you probably won’t mind that the creators sacrificed a bit of reality for drama, which is also why, you know, the main character can fly.
Mike Widener, the rare book librarian mentioned in the article, formerly oversaw the Law in Popular Culture collection at our own Tarlton Law Library here in Austin, which houses a great array of movies and books with lawyerly angles.
And as she lost consciousness of outer things, and her name and her personality and her appearance, and whether Mr. Carmichael was there or not, her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting over that glaring, hideously difficult white space, while she modelled it with greens and blues.
At no point has it even occurred to me, until right now, that I’m in fact typing e-words or e-sentences. I’ve not thought about adding an e-carriage return to separate this e-paragraph from the next e-paragraph.
The first such Disney film I ever saw was Snow White, which added considerably to my experience of wonderful fear and terror, even though its heroine was a doll. This, I have been told, was because it was made by German refugees who had a sense of the darkness of the old stories. The film Bambi diminished the sense of real forests and creatures I had found in the book. The unbearable thing was the filming of the Jungle Books. Disney cartoons use the proportions of human baby faces – those wide eyes, those chubby cheeks we respond to automatically. The black hunting panther, the terrible strong snake, the wolf pack and its howl, the cringing tiger became dolls and toys like Pooh, Piglet and Eeyore, and some crucial imaginative space was irretrievably lost.
From AS Byatt’s essay in the Guardian about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland / Through the Looking-glass, which offers some great insight into the difference between Lewis Carroll’s imagined spaces and narrative and those of other popular (later, 20th Century) fantasy stories for children.
But Gladwell frequently holds forth about statistics and psychology, and his lack of technical grounding in these subjects can be jarring. He provides misleading definitions of “homology,” “saggital plane” and “power law” and quotes an expert speaking about an “igon value” (that’s eigenvalue, a basic concept in linear algebra). In the spirit of Gladwell, who likes to give portentous names to his aperçus, I will call this the Igon Value Problem: when a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong.
There’s been a bit of a blogstorm over the impending release of the sequel to Freakonomics, the obviously-titled SuperFreakonomics. The authors are being taken to task for allegedly questionable science and statistics work, accused of oversimplifying or distorting their results for the sake of contrariness. There’s good discussion and links on Language Log’s post on the controversy:
Overall, the promotion of interesting stories in preference to accurate ones is always in the immediate economic self-interest of the promoter. It’s interesting stories, not accurate ones, that pump up ratings for Beck and Limbaugh. But it’s also interesting stories that bring readers to The Huffington Post and to Maureen Dowd’s column, and it’s interesting stories that sell copies of Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics. In this respect, Levitt and Dubner are exactly like Beck and Limbaugh.
We might call this the Pundit’s Dilemma — a game, like the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in which the player’s best move always seems to be to take the low road, and in which the aggregate welfare of the community always seems fated to fall. And this isn’t just a game for pundits. Scientists face similar choices every day, in deciding whether to over-sell their results, or for that matter to manufacture results for optimal appeal.
In the end, scientists usually over-interpret only a little, and rarely cheat, because the penalties for being caught are extreme. As a result, in an iterated version of the game, it’s generally better to play it fairly straight. Pundits (and regular journalists) also play an iterated version of this game — but empirical observation suggests that the penalties for many forms of bad behavior are too small and uncertain to have much effect. Certainly, the reputational effects of mere sensationalism and exaggeration seem to be negligible.
Some kind guy named Thom Buchanan has created a blog where he’s posting high-res scans of the daily and Sunday strips of Walt Kelly’s Pogo from the 1966 “Pogo in Pandemonia” storyline (one of the lesser-known and stranger bits from the comic, it’s set in a Lost World type locale instead of the usual Okefenokee swamp). Excellent. Now where’s that Fantagraphics set?