Cathedral by Raymond Carver

Cathedral by Raymond CarverWho is Raymond Carver? And what does he write? Other than noting that he was American, struggled with alcoholism, was up to his neck in the creative writing scene of American Universities in, and then wrote short stories back in the 70s and 80s, it’s hard to know what else to say about Carver. His stories are at once controlled and underwhelming, about nothing and about anything, and whilst being concerned with the ordinary, always flirting with some vague kind of transcendence: there’s always something more hinted at in Carver’s stories, but for the life of me I can never put my finger on it.

A review in the New York Times:

Interesting to try to work out what all the fuss is about. Not much I’d say. But I’m not completely sure.

Mr A

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

The New York Trilogy by Paul AusterThis has always been one of those cool books ever since it was published back in the 1980s. It is made up of three stories City of Glass, Ghosts and The Locked Room which had been published separately and then were combined to make this famous volume.

“Ostensibly presented as detective fiction, the stories of The New York Trilogy have been described as “meta-detective-fiction”, “anti-detective fiction”, “mysteries about mysteries”, a “strangely humorous working of the detective novel”, “very soft-boiled”, a “metamystery” and a “mixture between the detective story and the nouveau roman”. This may classify Auster as a postmodern writer whose works are influenced by the “classical literary movement” of American postmodernism through the 1960s and 70s. There is, however, “a certain coherence in the narrative discourse, a neo-realistic approach and a show of responsibility for social and moral aspects going beyond mere metafictional and subversive elements“, which distinguish him from a “traditional” postmodern writer. The New York Trilogy is a particular form of postmodern detective fiction which still uses well-known elements of the detective novel (the classical and hardboiled varieties, for example) but also creates a new form that links “the traditional features of the genre with the experimental, metafictional and ironic features of postmodernism.”

I don’t remember enjoying it when I first read it many years ago, but, whatever about its cool credentials and its importance as a development from post-modern fiction – what has been termed “neo-realism”, i.e. eschewing the more unrealistic and maddening aspects of post-modern literature – it’s still a good read. A good introduction to what literary fiction has been doing in the last 50 years. Not just navel-gazing.

Mr A

What Does Jorge Luis Borges’ “Library of Babel” Look Like? An Accurate Illustration Created with 3D Modeling Software


Sketchup renderings of the Library of Babel. Images courtesy of Jamie Zawinski.

Fulfilling the maxim “write what you know,” Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges penned one of his most extraordinary and bewildering stories, “The Library of Babel,” while employed as an assistant librarian. Borges, it has been noted—by Borges himself in his 1970 New Yorker essay “Autobiographical Notes”—found the work dreary and unfulfilling: “nine years of solid unhappiness,” as he put it plainly. “Sometimes in the evening, as I walked the ten blocks to the tramline, my eyes would be filled with tears.”


And yet, for all of its tedium, his library position suited his needs as a writer like none other could. “I would do all my library work in the first hour,” he remembers, “and then steal away to the basement and pass the other five hours in reading or writing.” During those stolen hours, Borges dreamed up a library the size of the universe, “composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings.” Like so many of the objects and places in Borges’ stories, this fantastic structure, Escher-like, is both vividly described and impossible to imagine.


Many have tried their hand at visually rendering the Library of Babel, but according to programmer Jamie Zawinski, “past attempts,” writes Carey Dunne at Hyperallergic, “aren’t faithful to the text,” omitting crucial structures like the “sleep chamber, lavatory, and hallway” and screwing up “the placement of the spiral stairway.” You can see Zawinski’s various critiques of these supposed failures on his blog, JWZ. And you may wonder how it’s even possible to construct an accurate model of a structure that may have no finite boundaries and whose internal architecture the story itself calls into question. Nonetheless, Zawinski has boldly given it a try.


Using the 3D modeling program Sketchup, he has designed what he believes to be a model superior to the rest, though he admits “I don’t think this is quite right either.” If you’re wondering “Why is he doing this?” Zawinski writes, “you and I have that in common.” The Borgesian task, like that of the librarian, is an endless one, pursued with scholastic rigor for its own sake rather than for some great reward. And once one enters the labyrinth of his twisting designs, there may be no way out but eternally through. “The possibility of a man’s finding his Vindication,” writes Borges wearily of certain librarians’ attempts to solve the library’s riddles, “or some treacherous variation thereof, can be computed as zero.”


So Zawinski trudges on. His “wrestling with the details of his rendering,” writes Dunne, “his obsessive analysis of the wording of Borges’ description, recalls the library inhabitants’ futile quests to decipher the mysteries of the library.” The programmer’s admirable attention to the physics of the space may at times sound like a rather leaden way to approach what is essentially an elaborate metaphor: “I can’t help but think about the weight and pressure of a column of air that high,” he muses in his initial explorations, “and what is it sitting on, and how to route the plumbing from all of those toilets, and that toilets imply digestion, so where does the food come from?”

David Foster Wallace on What’s Wrong with Postmodernism: A Video Essay

“We live in a nightmare that David Foster Wallace had in 1994,” said a tweet that put me in stitches last summer, but I have a sense that we’ve only sunk deeper into that hyperverbal, media-obsessed, and deeply fearful novelist’s bad dreams since then. “The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality,” Philip Roth argued 55 years ago. “The actuality is continually outdoing our talents.” Now, at the beginning of the 21st, that actuality outdoes not just what the comparatively traditional Roth could come up with, but even anything imaginable by Wallace’s heirs in the form-breaking, extremity-oriented realm of “postmodernism.”

An Animated Introduction to Charles Dickens’ Life & Literary Works

The social role of the writer changes from generation to generation, but at no time in the history of literary culture have novelists and poets faced more competition for the attention of their readers than they do today. Before visual media took over as the primary means of storytelling, however, many writers enjoyed the measure of fame now given to film and pop music stars. Or at least they did in the age of Charles Dickens, whose tireless self-promotion and populist sentiments endeared him to the public and made him one of the most famous men of his day.

Dickens was “a great showman” says Alain de Botton above in his School of Lifeintroduction to the author of Great ExpectationsOliver TwistA Tale of Two Cities, and too many more great books to name. (Find them in our collections of Free eBooks and Free Audio Books.) He was a natural celebrity before radio and television and, to the dismay of his more high-minded colleagues, “entertainment was at the heart of what Dickens was up to.”

But Dickens used his public platform not only to advance his career, but also to “get us interested in some pretty serious things: the evils of an industrializing society, the working conditions in factories, child labor, vicious social snobbery, the maddening inefficiencies of government bureaucracy.” Then and now, these are hardly subjects readers want to be reminded of. And yet, then as now, great storytellers can make us care despite our apathy and desire for escapist pleasure. And few writers have made readers care more than Dickens.

His “genius was to discover that the big ambitions to educate a society about its failings didn’t have to be opposed to what his critics called ‘fun’—racy plots, a chatty style, clownish characters, weepy moments, and happy endings.” Yet Dickens didn’t only seek to educate, de Botton argues; he “believed that writing could play a big role in fixing the problems of the world.” In this he was not entirely wrong, despite the anti-political sentiments of so many aesthetes who have argued otherwise, from Oscar Wilde to W.H. Auden.

Though he opposed many working class movements and had no “coherent doctrine” of social change, says Hugh Cunningham, professor of social history at the University of Kent, Dickens “helped create a climate of opinion” by emotionally moving people to sympathize with the poor and to take action in controversies already raging in the zeitgeist. In this role, Dickens preceded dozens of writers who—like himself—began their careers in journalism and sought through fiction to motivate complacent readers: naturalist novelists like Emile Zola, Stephen Crane, and Theodore Dreiser, and muckraking realists like Upton Sinclair all owe something to Dickens’ mode of social protest through novel-writing.

De Botton goes on in his introduction to explain some of the biographical origins of Dickens’ sympathy for the afflicted, including his own time spent as a child laborer and his father’s confinement in debtor’s prison. The conditions Dickens and his characters endured are unimaginable to most privileged readers, but not to millions of people in poverty around the world who still live under the kind of squalid oppression the Victorian poor suffered. Whether any author in the 21st century can bring the same kind of sympathetic attention to their lives that Dickens did in his time is debatable, but De Botton uses Dickens’ example to argue that art and entertainment can “seduce” us into compassion and taking action for others.

Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment Presented in a Beautifully Animated Short Film

In this darkly poetic animation, the Polish filmmaker Piotr Dumala offers a highly personal interpretation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic novel, Crime and Punishment. “My film is like a dream,” Dumala said in 2007. “It is as if someone has read Crime and Punishment and then had a dream about it.”