This recipe was copied from a yellow index card, titled "Mrs. Miller's Sweet Kugel", which Linda has carefully preserved for many years. I first sampled it in Woolman Hall, Swarthmore College.

1/4 lb butter
1c sugar
1/2 box raisins (1/2 lb, that is. They've been making boxes smaller these days)
3 apples, diced (Linda says sliced, but I think she means cut into wedges and rough chopped)
some slivered or sliced almonds (an interpolation, but it can't hurt)
1/2c milk
12oz egg noodles
4 eggs, well beaten
1T cinnamon

Cook the noodles until nearly al dente. Turn into a bowl, add the butter, and then the sugar, raisins, apples, almonds, and eggs. Turn into a 13"x9" pane, dust with cinnamon, and bake at 350° for about 45 minutes.

It's the season for fresh starts and fresh projects -- and Eastgate has a terrific sale to help you get off on the right foot.

Tinderbox is $50 off, and upgrades are $20 off the usual price.

Plus, you can save $10 each on four great hypertexts:

  • Of Day, Of Night
  • Cultures in Webs
  • My Name is Captain, Captain
  • Califia

(The hypertext sale is semi-secret: you'll see the sale price after you put the title in your shopping cart.)

Great reading, great writing. Enjoy!

Sep 06 2 2006

Five foods

Truffle Farmer Gareth Renowden chimes on with Five things to eat before you die. (Enough with the dying, already; five things to eat is sufficient).

His top pick is andouillette, a sausage with its own web site . Its admirers have a society, the Association Amicale des Amateurs d'Andouillettes Authentiques. Naturally, the list reaches its crescendo with Tuber magnatum.

I'm on deadline today, so I can't dawdle and dally, and finding a definitive list is going to be tough anyway. Do you want the five best things, or the five things everyone doesn't already know about? What about things that were good, but you can't get them anymore because the restaurant closed or they don't make them anymore or it's just not like it used to be?

Here are five good things, with suggestions of where to find them. The locations are just suggestions; you can find all of them in your own back yard.

  1. Souvlakia (street stand near Nemea, Greece)
  2. Noodle kugel (aunt Hazel's was great, Linda's is pretty good; an unploughed field for restauranteurs)
  3. Midnight paella, Barcelona
  4. Seared foie gras, Geronimo (Santa Fe)
  5. Brook trout, fresh from the stream, dredged in corn meal and fried in bacon fat over an open fire

But I could give you lots more fives and still have plenty left to feed a crowd.

What is the state of the art in screen scraping API's -- tools for grabbing nuggets out of Web pages? If you know, Email me.. Thanks.

Update: a new Web service, Dappit, is widely mentioned. Screen scraping bothers some people, just as linking does. Specious republication is a problem, but it's naive to suppose that spammers can't write their own perl scripts. Meanwhile, people need ways to have their agents (human or automatic) go out and get information they require.

Anthracite is an application-level screen scraper. Perl and python have interesting scraping libraries as well.

by Josiah Osgood

Writing last May in the TLS, T. P. Wiseman compared three recent books on the assasination of Julius Caesar and its aftermath. It's a fine review, showing in turn what each writer set out to do and explaining where they strayed from the path. The review gets off to a tremendous start:

It was a run of more than 500 metres, with a steep little climb at the end of it, from the Senate-house in Pompey's Portico, where Julius Caesar had been murdered, to the Capitol. It can't have been easy to run in a blood-soaked toga while brandishing a sword and shouting out that the tyrant was dead and freedom restored. The adrenalin must soon have been spent when the cheering crowds failed to materialize. What sort of freedom, and for whom? And what sort of tyrant had he been, anyway?

The book Wiseman admires is this this one, and indeed it's a masterful new study of a singularly well studied fifteen years. Osgood does a wonderful job of using every available textual source, from Appian and Cicero to Horace and Vergil. Indeed, he uses the poets to terrific effect; I've never seen so much historical evidence wrung from this kind of literature before. Archaeological and epigraphic evidence are brought to bear as well, along with good sense and a generous breadth of focus that includes the losers as well as the winners, and the infantry as well as the officers.

This is a distinguished book, influenced by Fussel's The Great War and Modern Memory. But where Fussell shows how poetry changed the way we remember the war, Osgood uses poetry to recapture how people thought about the proscriptions and the civil war and its aftermath. What happened to Italians who lost their farms so that veterans could be resettled on their lands? It turns out we know. We've always known. Who knew?

Caesar's Legacy
Sep 06 1 2006


Adrian Miles says that blogs travel in packs:

Blogs always travel in packs. Packs are not herds, packs are something quite different. Deleuze is very good on packs, and particularly on how packs are not herds.

Do blogs always travel in packs? And are the packs always hunting?

by Karen Joy Fowler

A charming and delightful book in which five women, plus one inexplicable man, form a book club for the purpose of rereading all of Jane Austen. Fowler draws the characters with sympathy and quiet elegance. They all discuss books -- mostly, but not exclusively, Jane's books -- all the time, but they do it so naturally and sensibly that nothing seems like a college seminar. As the volume reaches its conclusion, we realize that we've spoken a great deal about Austen, but that Austen was never the point.

Last night, for the first time ever, I sat down to do a chore, picked up the printout, squinted, put down the printout, and went to hunt for Linda's reading glasses.

Oh, dear.

Alvin Chin is live-blogging the Hypertext Conference. He has very detailed notes on Ward Cunningham's opening keynote about why wikis can do so much with so little.

Aug 06 26 2006

What is a Wiki?

At the second Wiki symposium, participants were rapidly tiring of the question, "What is a wiki?" That's right on schedule; the second conference always gets tired of these tiresome definitions.

At one extreme, a wiki is a descendant of Ward Cunningham's original wiki. At another extreme, a wiki is a hypertext where readers can also revise and write. Following Michael Joyce, hypertext research has always called this constructive hypertext. In some ways, wikis do epitomize Joyce's vision of constructive hypertext:

versions of what they are becoming, a structure for what does not yet exist

I'd like to propose a middle way, a definition that is broad enough to contain everything that's distinctively wiki-like (though not everything that has some WikiNature in it).

Wikis are constructive hypertexts in which each place has a name, and writing that name represents a link to that place.

Hypertext systems always balance an emphasis on lexia with an emphasis on links. Intermedia and Storyspace foreground the links: you see the Web View or the Storyspace Map before you see the text. Sometimes, it's almost as if the text decorates and extends the structure of connection. The spatial hypertext systems VIKI, VKB, and ART foreground the structure, too, even though they don't have links. ZigZag is close in spirit, too; the structure is Spartan but it's always very close to the surface. NLS/Augment, the Web and most of the OHS implementations are more balanced; there's less emphasis on overt structure but the links are always present (and they're often painted bright blue and underlined just to make sure you notice).

Wiki is the most extreme of place-centered hypertexts. A place is its name, and that name is a token you can always redeem for a trip to that place. This gives Wiki power; it's very easy to create a link. It's easy to make a new place: if you link to a place that doesn't exist, the link brings its destination into existence. It's also easy to imagine the consequences of following a link: unless you build pages with misleading names, the link name stands for its content. Ironic links, as in Victory Garden, are tricky to pull off in a wiki. Feints (see Patterns of Hypertext) don't have WikiNature.

Aug 06 25 2006

Lecture Notes

My WikiSym slides on Intimate Information: organic hypertext structure and incremental formalization for everyone’s everyday tasks are available on the Lecture Notes page. Please grab the Quicktime version if you don't need the pdf -- it's much smaller.

Update: links fixed

Bonnie Ruberg reviews Marie-Laure Ryan's Avatars of the Story.

It's a brand-new survey of new media narrative; I'm eager to hear more about it.

Today was the first day of WikiSym. The Proceedings are online, though half the conference is an OpenSpace workshop and so won't have Proceedings until the workshop has proceeded.

It's a nice size for a symposium. There are apparently going to be lots of long faces about the turnout for Hypertext, which will be about the same size. Perspective matters.

Some initial thoughts:

  • Odense is charming, but weirdly empty
  • There's lots of smoked salmon around. I think that was caviar at lunch, too. I can live with that.
  • Amazing bundles of wiki folk. The program chair is James Noble, whose early work on prototype inheritance is one of the main influences on the design of Tinderbox. I didn't know he did wiki's!
  • I met Sunir Shah, whose work I've been reading for years on various wikis. I had no idea whatsover about his age or affiliation, and that in itself is a remarkable wiki effect. He's working on a new project, startup-in-a-box.
  • Everyone here is very interested in, and intelligent about, social aspects of wikis. A vast amount of that intelligence goes into spam control. Ward Cunningham was showing a nice quick-and-dirty visualization of activity that reveals lots of malicious patterns of usage. To have this many people and this much talent devoted to a war against vandalism -- a war no one is confident they can win -- is ludicrous. What price openness now?
  • People here are very worried about the difficulty of wiki markup. Funny: Tinderbox has always had wysiwyg markup, and plenty of people keep wanting us to support Markdown or something of that ilk. Yes, repeat no?

Lunch at Torvaldsen and a plate of herring three ways, with a large beer. Including red herring! At least, one of the herrings was reddish! The herring preparations seem to have sames, in the general vein of "farmer's daughter herring". There is probably a story.

Someone could write an interesting footnote about narrative food.

In Denmark, a large beer is (fortunately) much smaller than a small beer in München. Any way you slice it, the herring was much better than my customary herring, which comes in jars.

Herring, Glypotek, Nikolaj

I wanted to mention that the ambient bread in Europe, the bread you find in any old restaurant or café, still seems to be much better than the better bread in the US. Two meals into the trip, and I've had three different kinds of bread: a crumbly white, a richly golden bread that I'd have supposed was cornbread (but what would cornbread be doing in Denmark?), and a nice variant of the densely seeded dark bread that I think of as "German breakfast bread". Iggy's should tune in.

The entire collection of French painting at the Ny Carlsberg Glypotek was closed. Shades of the memorable visit to the Vatican. A room filled with Carpeaux mostly goes to show that you can get a little bit too much Carpeaux without needing a very big room. And I like Carpeaux. The Roman portraits are fine, especially since I'm reading Osgood's wonderful book on Caesar's Legacy.

Herring, Glypotek, Nikolaj
Herring, Glypotek, Nikolaj

Some of the 19th century Danish sculpture was great. Stephan Sinding, in particular, has a wonderful reaction to Thorvaldsen's neoclassicism. His lovers actually look like they're interested in each other -- the boys have a certain Christmas-morning look about them as they go about the unwrapping. He didn't get the What do I do now? part of it, but maybe that's just 20th century.

His Death and the Maiden is wonderful in a different way. This is a strain of 19th century art that you have to see right now before they hide it all away again, along with all those little girls whose dressed just happen to be falling off. There's strong emotion here, and while you might not want to have dinner with the guy who thought this up, it really does say something. (See also Little Women and Little Nell.)

It makes sense that, when I finally tried tournedos Rossini, it was at an amusement park.

Tivoli Rossini and Rain

I first read about Tivoli Gardens in the context of War and THE vanished world. Exodus, I think, or maybe War and Remembrance. I can't check, because the Marriott wants $30/day for internet. But Tivoli for me was an image of a lost world. I wasn't expecting much.

It's really surprisingly good. Just about what you'd expect, if you took the 18th-century pleasure garden and added electricity.

I hadn't expected Tivoli to be a place you go at night. But there were lots of kids. Great family portraits: the oh-so-adult nymphet sitting beside the bored younger brother, sitting beside the astonished 6-year-old. (I thought Danes still kept farmer's hours, also known as American meal times?) And I'd never imagined that it would be packed with white-tablecloth restaurants serving things like fjord shrimp and tournedos Rossini.

Tivoli Rossini and Rain

And you know, it was pretty good. The meat was lean European beef, and so the kitchen cooked it very, very gently. But, given the available materials, that's probably the right approach. The foie gras was lovely. I think that the truffles were summer truffles, alas, but this is summer and this is Denmark, and I believe that all Danish truffles are summer truffles. (I was holding out a sneaking hope that they'd be New Zealand truffles or something like that, but no luck.) The chef compensated by adding a nice sauté of mixed mushrooms.

I asked for adivce choosing a glass of wine to go with the fjord shrimp. I thought this a sensible thing to ask: surely, lots of visitors to Tivoli aren't exactly sure what wine goes well with fjord shrimp? After all, I ordered the fjord shrimp because, back where I come from, we have no fjord shrimp, or fjords.

The waiter thought I was bats: 'Which wine do you feel like?' Not the answer I expected, but perhaps a wise answer anyway. Zen and the art of table service. Another waiter kept sprinting across the balcony, trying to stay out of the drizzle, and causing various sorts of mild havoc, which reminded me of the passage from The Making of a Chef where the CIA students are taught never, ever, to run in the front of the house: it makes the patrons worry that the place is on fire.

It began to pour as I finished, and having been up pretty much continuously for 36 hours, after two mostly-white nights this week (hi Mom!), I didn't stay for either of the concerts or for a peek at Alvin Ailey. (Alvin Ailey in an amusement park? Nice!)

Tivoli Rossini and Rain
Aug 06 18 2006


It's good to hear that the carry-on restrictions at Heathrow have been eased somewhat.

Prudence is good, and sound police work commendable, but our reactions to plots of threats need to be tempered with realism. It's a dangerous world, and it's easy to make threats. If every threat leads us to spend vast sums and to endure countless hours of delay in order to thwart it, to misplace 10,000 suitcases, and then tempts us to further erode our freedoms and to relieve our frustrations through kidnapping and torture, we ruin ourselves.

by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer

This massive volume collects a range of exciting science fiction that shares an interest in vast scale, great events, and baroque emotions. The editors observe that the term "space opera" was, until quite recently, a term of abuse, meaning in essence "bad science fiction". Some early writers like Leigh Brackett (who wrote the screenplay of both The Big Sleep and The Empire Strikes Back) did embrace the term, but their embrace is tinged with modesty and self-deprecation. The early space opera was closely allied to the Western; it was deeply interested in the frontier, in the relation between independent individuals and the mass of society, and in the beneficial effects of resolute action, improvisation, and violence.

In the seventies, the term was revived to stand in opposition to the excesses of the New Wave, and more recently still it has been adopted by writers, many of them British and Australian, who explore a future not patterned on the American model, a future with a leftist sensibility to set against reactionary American militarism.

Reviewing the collection in Hartwell and Cramer's own forum, The New York Review of Science Fiction, Brian Stableford argues that this historical vision is mistaken and incomplete. Speaking at Readercon a few days before publication, Hartwell himself voiced doubts concerning the overview, and uncertainty regarding the appropriate definition of space opera itself.

The great interest I find in the volume lies not in the historical and critical perplexities but in the way it uncovers and explore a remarkable political division in current space opera. Much of the rest of the world, it appears, views current American science fiction as right-wing and militaristic. The Americans, in turn, seem to have reacted by becoming even more defiantly reactionary, all the way to David Weber's "Ms. Midshipwoman Harrington" which is, very literally, Horatio Hornblower in drag. Baxter's "The Great Game" is a savage picture of

by Jonathan Rose

Young historians learn quickly that some excellent and important questions cannot be answered because nobody made records of things which, once, everybody knew. Now, no one knows, and we seem to have no way of learning.

Jonathan Rose sets out to ask one of these questions: what did Victorian working-class people -- miners, servants, factory girls, pickpockets -- like to read? And what did they think about it? We know what the professors and critics read, but what about poor kids in Welsh coal towns?

This brilliant and astonishing book poses an unanswerable questions and then proceeds to answer it thoroughly, precisely, and sympathetically. Though working people did not write literary criticism, they did sometimes write journals and diaries and autobiographies. Rose has read most of the roughly 2000 memoirs that survive. He examines library records to find what working class libraries purchased, how they chose their collections, what books were borrowed and which sat on dusty shelves. He looks at bookselling and magazine publishing for clues about what people liked -- and what they thought of it. He explores the records of schools and mutual-improvement societies and lecture series, the schedules of concert halls and policy debates of radio networks. Rose finds a wealth of evidence where it seems none could exist, and sorts that evidence carefully.

Above all, Rose is always vigilant to discover what people actually thought and how they actually responded to things they read. It is easy to imagine how working people must have responded to advertising and propaganda, but such imaginings often turn out to be contradicted by the evidence. Unschooled people, it seems, were surprisingly intelligent consumers of advertising and propaganda; they were happy to extract things they wanted and to reject messages they disliked. The treacly literature of girl's magazines, for example, had less impact on girls' education than might be imagined because girls overwhelmingly read (and preferred) stories for and about boys. The racist imperialism of so much bad Victorian fiction seems to have little impact on workers until very late; miners and navvies adored Uncle Tom's Cabin and, even though Labor papers generally sided with the Confederacy, workers themselves identified the cause of the South with the cause of the Bosses.

Rose shows the intellectual roots and reasons for tendencies we can easily see in fiction, but which seem arbitrary and inexplicable. Why were poor people so culturally conservative? Why, in particular, did they so strongly dislike the moderns and the Bohemians? This tension forms the background of many familiar stories, from Howard's End to Upstairs Downstairs and The Remains of the Day; Rose explains it. Small-town religious anxiety over sexual mores plays a smaller role, and the class consciousness and snobbery of the leading moderns a larger one, than I would have anticipated.

Aug 06 12 2006

Tinderbox 3.5.3

A minor update to Tinderbox has just been posted. It fixes a variety of small problems and adds a few under-the-hood features. Remarcommended for everyone.

New in the Tinderbox File Exchange: the demo kit for Simile Timeline, to help build timeline pages like my Talks schedule. Requires Tinderbox 3.5.3.

I just finished the first season of Veronica Mars. It's a clever idea -- a very contemporary re-conceptualization of Nancy Drew or The Dana Girls, stories about high school girls who are detectives in their spare time. Veronica a wonderful power fantasy: Veronica is beautiful and sassy and fiercely independent. She's incredibly smart and fantastically hard-boiled. She always has a better come-back than she needs.

Veronica Mars: Flatness and Depth

Some lunkhead has let the air out of her tires in the school parking lot, and a classmate sees her working on her car. (Working on her car! I can't change my own tires!)

Troy: Flat?

Veronica: Just as God made me.

I was leafing through Marie-Laure Ryan's brand-new Avatars of Story this morning and came across this argument about interactive drama.

Just as not every novel can be successfully adapted to film, not every type of character and consequently not every type of plot lends itself to the first-person perspective of interactive drama. Given the choice, would we want to share the subjectivity of somebody like Hamlet, Emma Bovary, Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphoses, Oedipus, and Anna Karenina, or would we rather enter the skin of the dragon-slaying hero if Russian fairy tales, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, and Sherlock Holmes? If we pick a character from the second list, this means that we prefer identifying with a rather flat but active character whose participation in the plot is not a matter of emotional relation to other characters but a matter of exploring a world, solving problems, performing actions, and competing against enemies. There may be good reason why computer games overwhelmingly favor certain types of plot and user experience.

I'm not a great fan of Harry Potter, but Harry is hardly "flat but active" and the whole point of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone seems to be that your character ought to combine action and contemplation, courage and prudence. Sherlock Holmes is far from flat, and Alice is hardly a woman of action.

You might not want to be Emma Bovary, but how about Jane Bennet?

Oedipus Rex, on the other hand, is flat. He's got one goal: he's going to save his people. Nothing is going to stop him -- certainly no mere personal consideration. He's going to get to the bottom of things. Oedipus doesn't have a roommate or a violin, he doesn't use cocaine when sad or pick out the sovereign's initials in bullet holes when bored. We don't know much of anything about Oedipus' brother and his remarkably regular habits, nor about his obliging landlady.

Would we rather spend a day as Alice (the idealized portrait of the most lovable girl in England) or Oedipus, the tyrant? This is to ask, in essence, whether we would prefer to imagine ourselves as a character defined by their virtues, or as a character defined by their terrible fault.

The passage begins with the assertion that the type of character necessarily dictates the type of plot. This strikes me as insupportable. Surely, any character might be placed in any plot -- just as you yourself can't know what tomorrow's story might bring. Could Hamlet be placed in a bedroom farce? Sure: Hamlet III.2 70ff. Could Hamlet be placed into a hard-boiled detective story? See Altman's The Long Goodbye.Could Hamlet be placed in a space opera? Why not?

Here's another teegager: Polyxena, one of the surviving women of Troy, who is about to be sacrificed so she can join the dead Achilles in Charles Mee's The Trojan Women 2.0:

Of course, I have to admit
I'd have liked to live a little longer
I mean there's a lot I don't know yet.
Like: why do guys insist on driving?
And how come they call on Friday to ask you out
for Friday night?
And why do guys hate to get dressed up?
How come they don't like to talk on the phone?
Why do guys drink out of the milk carton?
And how come they like to play air guitar?
Why is a guy who sleeps around a stud
but a girl who does is a slut?

This isn't precisely Euripides' Polixena. She's actually a lot closer to Veronica Mars. But she's in Occupied Troy, not San Diego.

Aug 06 9 2006


The program for next month's OZ-IA retreat (Sydney, September 30-Oct 1) has been released, and it looks to be an interesting time. Dan Saffer will be talking about moving beyond wireframes; his new book on Designing for Interaction arrived here at Eastgate just Friday. Donna Mauer, program chair of next year's IA Summit, will explore what every information architect should know about Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things. Eric Scheid is running a workshop on site maps -- it's high time to revisit that topic, don't you think?

I'm planning to talk about False intentions and the fallacy of finding.

Aug 06 7 2006

Writing Time

Diane Greco (August 3) responds to my irritation with Writing Down The Bones.

The most difficult problem I've had as a writer has been structuring my life so that writing happens on a daily basis. This is actually more difficult than it sounds. For me, it's been necessary to make my life much quieter and more predictable than it has ever been -- from the local decibel level to what's in the fridge...

Jane just ran in, shouting. Sigh. Even the best-laid plans, etc.

I write this blog on the sly, during moments stolen from other things -- from the books, mostly, but also from MJ, & from Jane. Which is awful. I've been feeling guilty about how infrequent my posts have been, too. Anyway -- lightning just flashed outside the window, here comes the rain -- my point is, Natalie Goldberg isn't wrong about how hard writing is. But she's right for the wrong reasons.

(Do read the whole post, and notice how well Greco uses a framing story, even in the tiny narrative space of a blog post.)

I don't think you can steal your time from others. It's not their time.

Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. A counted number of pulses only is given to us of a variegated, dramatic life. How may we see in them all that is to seen in them by the finest senses? How shall we pass most swiftly from point to point, and be present always at the focus where the greatest number of vital forces unite in their purest energy? -- Walter Pater 

(I know you can feel guilty about doing this, but that's another story. My people knows a lot about feeling guilty, and not being able to steal something doesn't mean you can't feel guilty about it.)

The quotation above is from Landow's The Victorian Web. While all the Wikipedians are celebrating here in Boston, they should raise a glass to Landow, who pedagogical webs and theoretical writings laid the intellectual foundations for Wiki in schools and universities.

Aug 06 5 2006

Book by Book

by Michael Dirda

This delightful little commonplace book collects inspiring (and unexpected) passages, and offers entertaining and thoughtful advice, on life's large questions and small puzzlements. His generous and engaging temperament is impatient with junk but finds fine work everywhere, from oft-dreaded classics to contemporary genre fiction. Dirda is especially wonderful when offering guidance on problems to which people seldom give much thought, and his advice on how best to furnish a guest-room bookshelf should be studied without delay by every owner of a bed-and-breakfast or country inn.

Writer and copywriter Angela Booth recommends the Tinderbox screencast on Plotting With Tinderbox.

Although I've been using the program for around ten months, I'm always finding new ways to make my writing life easier with it.

Just yesterday, I found one myself. I'm polishing a series of upcoming lectures on the hypertextuality of Tinderbox, and I wanted to jot down some sudden ideas for interplay between the text of the talk and the images I'll put on the screen. (I rely heavily on visuals, and often I let the visuals say one thing while I'm saying something else.) How couid I quickly distinguish visual notes in the text?

Set the under-utilized Tabs attribute to 1.5, and give those visual notes a big indent. With liberal paragraph spacing, they're set off very nicely indeed.

Aug 06 4 2006

Hard Work

Among the pleasant surprises of Michael Dirda's delightful little Book by Book is its praise for John Clute, whose commentary at Readercon was brilliant.

My stack of reading having toppled onto the printer, I was cleaning my desk yesterday when I came across Clute's review of the first two volumes of The Merchant Princes by Charles Stross in the New York Review of Science Fiction. What fun! He's got a theory: he thinks Stross is up to something, that Stross is playing a very long con. Everything is not what it seems, and there is something we've forgotten. I missed that, and assumed Stross was simply having fun. But of course, a story this large is too much work for mere fun, and Stross has fun with hard work. (You can, and should, subscribe to NYRSF, incidentally.)

This is one of Dirda's best points. Writing and reading are hard work, but each starts with fun. If it's not delighting you, why are you doing it?

It takes a lot to make me abandon a book. A voice in my head keeps telling me to persist, to work through it, not to waste the money. (Hi Mom! Hi Dad!)

But I've bailed on Writing Down The Bones. It was a promising idea: a famous book, read by the author, with lots of the author's candid commentary from ten or fifteen years down the road. I've got a ton of writing to do; I expected a certain amount of pep-talk hooey, but I can use a morning pep talk when it's 100° in the shade, the customers are off having vacation fun, the code is behaving strangely, and you've got 30,000 words to write right now.

It didn't work out. Writing shouldn't be so hard that you need to bribe yourself with chocolate chip cookies. Perhaps you might resort to this sort of trickery occasionally, just as you might -- invoking the shade of your inner undergraduate -- rely on a pot of strong coffee and a bright light to squeeze a few extra hours into the day before a deadline. But page after page of self-trickery, delusion, bargaining: if writing is so obviously contrary to your spirit, perhaps you should consider doing something else.

Some writers read their work well, but Natalie Goldberg is not among them. Her prose voice tends to whine, and when reading she has the unfortunate habit of drawing out the final syllable of nearly every sentence. Rhythm is not her writing's chief grace, and this defect masks whatever rhythm might be found on the page.

So no more bones for now. One of the most delightful sections of Dirda's Book by Book is an extensive list of books with which you might suitably furnish a guest room. Nothing too exciting or enthralling -- your guest doesn't want to embark on a vast new journey, and you don't want to lend a different thriller to each visitor -- but classic mysteries, browsable reference works (ranging from Fowler's Modern English Usage to Clute's Science Fiction Encyclopedia), and at least one Jane Austen. He writes warmly of The Jane Austen Book Club , and so discussions of Miss Austen have replaced those weary bones to brighten my long commute.