The purpose of art is to delight us; certain men and women (no smarter than you or I) whose art can delight us have been given dispensation from going out and fetching water and carrying wood. It's no more elaborate than that. — David Mamet

by Patrick Modiano

This strange and fascinating little book examines an aging writer who is deeply curious about his upbringing and, at the same time, would rather not know. He constantly visits and revisits details of a woman he once knew, her shady partner, her murdered girlfriend. She once gave him a folded piece of paper with his address inside, labelled “So you don’t get lost in the neighborhood.” He is completely devoted to this shadowy maternal replacement, of whom he has heard nothing for decades save that she is said to be in prison.

by Marc Levy

A frothy but good humored romance that takes its characters seriously, in which even minor characters have ideas. Chloe is a girl on wheels. Sanji is a wealthy young businessman from Mumbai, a fellow with a plan to chip away at caste restrictions through social media. They meet cute on a bench in Washington Square in Manhattan. Chloe lives in a nearby apartment building, a building in which Sanji’s uncle works as an elevator operator. It’s that sort of movie.

French is still a hard slog, but perhaps it’s gradually coming together.

Yesterday’s Tinderbox meetup was, I think, a true landmark.

As usual, there were lots of topics. Andreas Busch discussed his recent use of Tinderbox to examine how the membership of the Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen has changed over the years. Art Currim touched on the relationship between poetry and code (and the vexations a writer sometimes experiences when confronting the system’s esoteric demands). Michael Becker demonstrated his emerging doctoral work, and I talked a bit about sentiment analysis in the upcoming Tinderbox 9.

But the revelation for me was the discussion by Anthony Caldwell (Digital Research Consortium, UCLA) of his studies of Los Angeles movie theaters from the early 20th century. Many of these downtown movie palaces have survived, lots of oral history (some of it apocryphal) surround them, and their theaters — some sealed up for decades — have sculptures and murals by artists whom we now know to appreciate. It’s an interesting project!

Lots of contemporary sources exist: he’s got the literature references in Zotero from various online libraries and archives. Zotero, it turns out, downloads the pdfs when available, and he lets DEVONthink index these, giving him a full-text index into this specialized corpus. From that, he develops in Tinderbox some lovely and informative maps of stylistic and artistic influences.

Twenty or thirty years ago, I went to conferences where people speculated about the scholarly workbench of the future. (I wrote a hypertext for this symposium; I don’t know whether it holds up.) But my sense is that Prof. Caldwell wasn’t doing this to speculate on future technologies or to test digital humanities; this was just the best way to gather information about these interesting buildings. Yet, here we have pretty much everything we wanted back then, and it’s all off the shelf!

2021-Mar-20 Tinderbox Meetup from Tinderbox Meetups on Vimeo.

by Antoine Laurain

This is the first book I have read in another language that I have not read before in English. It goes slowly, but it goes: six weeks ago, I could barely make my way through the sly fox and the vain crow.

Like the other Antoine Laurain novels I have read, this is a sunny book that, for all its sunshine, is not entirely without shadows. Violaine Lepage is a publisher, in charge of her firm’s slush pile. This is an intimate portrait of a publishing industry that is somewhat removed from reality as I understand it today, and is perhaps intended to be read as a portrait of how the world ought to be rather than how it is. Indeed, the book opens with Violaine waking up in a hospital room in the aftermath of a terrible plane crash, and finding that her visitors include Marcel Proust, Michel Hoellebecq, Georges Perec, Patrick Modiano, and Virginia Woolf.

It’s really a lot of serious fun.

Mar 21 9 2021


At last!

The vaccine center (at Beth Israel) clearly suffers from a shortage of supply, is not operating anywhere close to capacity, and its capacity seems well below what the facility could accommodate.

by Jo Walton, trans. Luc Varissimo

This is the first book I have read in French. Le Petit Prince preceded it, but that’s not much of a book. Among Others is about children, in a way, but it’s not for children. It took a long time, I made a steady stream of blunders, I relied too much on the dictionary and on Bing Translate for help. But I made it.

I was surprised to find how intensely reading Morwenna in French recalled to me the experience of learning to read English. My dyslexia made that a long struggle. I remember one first-grade morning when Mrs. Boardman had us each reading our own copy of Fat Sam and Thin Anne, and I found myself pausing after a particularly difficult decipherment to say to myself, “I can manage this, but it’s very hard and it goes very slowly.” Adults I knew could do this instantly and without apparent effort, but for me to learn that seemed as distant and as improbable as learning to play second base like Don Buford.

Being forced to read at the pace of a hobbled first grader has some benefits. I’ve read this twice in English and had never noticed that Morwenna recalls playing dolls with her sister, and how they would invent stories of rescuing dragons from evil princesses. It’s easy to miss that sort of thing. The end, too, benefits from taking it slowly, which was necessary since “flaming javelin,” “extra-terrestrial space turtle” and “dagger” were not really part of my introductory vocabulary.

Mar 21 2 2021


by Robert Harris

Robert Harris returns to form, or at least to good cheer, in this pleasant melodrama about the V2 missile program and the British photo-analysts who tried to find a way to thwart it.

Feb 21 24 2021

Le Petit Prince

by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Today, I read a book in a language that is not English, for only the second or third time in my life.

I’ve been working on a project on the intellectual roots of hypertext and the Web, an inquiry inspired by a class to which Andy van Dam and Norm Meyrowitz invited me to speak last year. I’ve been asking lots of people for advice on sources for various questions. One suggested a multi-volume work which seems eminently pertinent, but which is only available in French.

After some prevarication, I realized that if a graduate student in this pickle came to me for advice, I would likely say, “Learn to read French, or start over on a different topic.” With my hearing problems, I’m never going to manage to speak, but reading might be possible.

I asked my eminent cousin, “Suppose you had a graduate student to whom you had said, ‘go away and come back and talk when you have an adequate reading knowledge of French.’ When would you expect to see this student next?” She said, “Six months: three months intensive coursework, three months in France.” I can’t manage that. There’s work to do, and we’re still in the midst of pandemic. But perhaps we can get somewhere, and perhaps my eminent cousin has high standards.

Reading on the iPad is great because the dictionary is a joy to use. And, do I use it! Even for this famously easy little children’s book, I’m puzzling out the simplest little things. (We do have some esoteric vocabulary: boas (open and closed), baobabs, switchmen, and lamplighters for starters.) This is a profound book but an odd one for children, perhaps even sadder than Charlotte’s Web which was read to me once and remains unbearable to think about.

Next up, I’m going to attempt Jo Walton’s Among Others en Français, where it has a different title but will still, I hope, be tons of fun.