Umberto Eco's web of lists and The Name of the Rose

In an interview with the German newspaper SPIEGEL, Umberto Eco says that ‘We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die.’ His first answer goes:

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.

One can see the intellectual footprints of Eco’s work at the Louvre—he’s curating an exhibit about lists—in Reflections on The Name of the Rose, where he discusses the composition and ideas behind The Name of the Rose: “I dug out a huge amount of material (file cards, photocopies, notebooks), accumulated since 1952 and originally intended for other, still-vague purposes: a history of monsters, or an analysis of the medieval encyclopedias, or a theory of lists. . . .” (emphasis added). On page 24, he says that he made “Lists of names and personal data for many characters [….]”

Alas: the interviewer didn’t know about these obscure references and missed the chance to ask about them. Does he perceive his books as an effort to order chaos? Do books bring a certain amount of chaos (intellectual, social) of their own? He describes The Name of the Rose as a text composed of other texts, as all books are to some extent, but how does this metaphor of the web fit with our conception of lists? I could try to answer some of these questions, and do in my mind, but I would like to see the master’s thoughts too.

Granted, maybe my curiosity simply implies I should see the exhibit, but the Louvre is a long way from Tucson. Eco, however, still firmly resides in my mind, and implicitly on the minds of others; over at The Atlantic Andrew Sullivan says that “It’s staggering really that modern American Christianism supports wealth while Jesus demanded total poverty [….]” Maybe Jesus demanded poverty and maybe he didn’t: as Eco says in both Reflections and The Name of the Rose, the “poverty debate” dominated learned circles in 1321, masking a larger debate about power and its deployment. The arguments Eco recounts in The Name of the Rose shows that, if the answer were as simple as Sullivan describes, there would be no debate. But where there is money, and by extension power, there is sure to be a multiplicity of interpretations based on who stands to materially gain—and lose.

As so often becomes the case after one becomes familiar with his work, Eco has already been there.

Late November Links: Academia, artistic dangers, reading, and more

The Ph.D. Problem: On the professionalization of faculty life, doctoral training, and the academy’s self-renewal.

* A Little-Known Occupational Hazard Affecting Writers: writing (or wanting to write) outside your field.

* When Great Artists Dry Up.

* Cellphones, Texts, and Lovers, on how technology is or is not reshaping romance in the digital age. I don’t really buy the argument, but I find it suggestive nonetheless.

* James Fallows has a typically nuanced, brilliant series on Obama’s trip to Asia, and especially its Chinese implications.

* Das Keyboard is sponsoring the Ultimate Typing Championship. Do you have the “fiercest typing skills around?” Me neither. But those who do can win $2,000 at the SXSW festival in Austin. The e-mail I got says, “Oh, and don’t forget to sign-up yourself to compete! At a minimum, it’s an opportunity for bragging rights among your friends and co-workers. :)”

Alas: I’m a relatively slow typist at 50-ish WPM. Usually the problem isn’t typing speed—it’s thinking speed, and I haven’t found a hardware solution for that yet.

* Local Bookstores, Social Hubs, and Mutualization. Like me, Clay Shirky finds it more than a little difficult to believe that cheap hardcover books are bad for readers, even if they might be bad for publishers as they currently exist.

* What the iPod tells us about Britain’s economic future.

* Secret copyright treaty leaks, and it’s bad. Very bad.

* Sunday afternoon at the Shenzhen Public Library. As James Fallows says at the link, “No wonder Shenzhen is on the rise.”

* Gossip Girl might be worth watching again.

* Are too many students going to college?

* Learn your damn homophones.

* No one wants America to be the sole global superpower, but no one wants to share the load.

* I love it: the bookstore Lorem Ipsum is having an “anti-sale.” As they say: “Everyone like’s a sale, right? But does anyone like an anti-sale? We hope so!

What’s an anti-sale, you ask? It’s when nothing in the store is on sale. We’re proud to announce that none of our items are on sale, instead they are for purchase for regular price. We think it’s ground-breaking.”

* Inculcating a Love for Reading: Children’s books that might help repel the armies of electronic distraction.

* From Oxford to Wall Street: what the rising number of Rhodes Scholars in business and finance means. Or, according to actual Rhodes scholar, maybe not.

* Are U.S. Wages Too High?

* Why are some cities more entrepreneurial than others?

* The Writing Habits of Great Authors.

* Hilarious search query of the day that brought someone to The Story’s Story: “bookworms sex.”

Harold Bloom on word processors (and, for good measure, editing)

Interviewer: Do you think that the word processor has had or is having any effect on the study of literature?

Bloom: There cannot be a human being who has fewer thoughts on the whole question of word processing than I do. I’ve never even seen a word processor. I am hopelessly archaic.

Interviewer: Perhaps you see an effect on students’ papers then?

Bloom: But for me the typewriter hasn’t even been invented yet, so how can I speak to this matter? I protest! A man who has never learned to type is not going to be able to add anything to this debate. As far as I’m concerned, computers have as much to do with literature as space travel, perhaps much less. I can only write with a ballpoint pen, with a Rolling Writer, they’re called, a black Rolling Writer on a lined yellow legal pad on a certain kind of clipboard. And then someone else types it.

Interviewer: And someone else edits?

Bloom: No one edits. I edit. I refuse to be edited.

This passages comes from The Paris Review Interviews Vol. II, which is much recommended, and should be considered in light of my recent post on The computer, operating system, or word processor a writer or novelist uses doesn’t matter much, although I still like Macs. If Bloom, Freud, and Shakespeare could get by without debating the operating system or word processor being used, so too should you (this isn’t the same as saying you shouldn’t use a word processor, but rather that you should spend the minimum amount of time worrying about it, and the maximum amount of time worrying about your writing).

Max Jamison — Wilfrid Sheed

Really good and really bad books often announce themselves early: in the case of the former, you find that moment of shock and astonishment that propels you forward. In Max Jamison, that moments hits on page 7, when Flashman is described not as “a theater critic at all, but a maid-of-all-work gossip columnist and second-string reviewer who scooped up free tickets like a mechanical crane and prowled the lobbies for carrion.” Status and aesthetic contempt intermingle: Flashman doesn’t appreciate art because he’s “like a mechanical crane,” and yet at the same time he feeds on the dead—dead plays, dead reviewers, dead everything.

Max, on the other hand, sees himself as an antidote of sorts to that: he’s a theater critic with, if not heart, then at least acerbic taste, which is better than no taste at all. But he’s not terribly happy and is too aware of his own faults to let something like sentimental happiness buoy him; in another early scene, he thinks that “The actors he talked to were dull as ballplayers and degradingly anxious to please.” Or, more likely, the actors are worried about angering critics on whose fancy rides their career. But if that critic is sufficiently cantankerous, their actions simply won’t matter, and Max is holding the line against—what? Not the cavalry charge, certainly, but against something, even if he’s not sure what.

In the two paragraphs above, I’ve utterly failed to convey how funny Max Jamison is, perhaps because explaining the joke also kills it. Max is funny to himself but to few others; his estranged wife says, “I wish you wouldn’t attend so much. I wish I could split an infinitive with you sometime, or have a really silly discussion.” If Max worries about split infinitives, he truly is a nasty pedant, since split infinitives are a problem in Latin, not in English. Pedants who half understand their problems and are trying to remedy them are sometimes the most amusing of all, since they’re in the joke enough to be aware of their situation but not so much that they can remedy it.

Saul Bellow frequently exploits this metaphysical, intellectual, and sometimes sexual state; so does Mordecai Richler in Barney’s Version. It also might lend heft to a novel that could otherwise flutter—what’s most fascinating about Max is his sense of infinity within a confined space, which avoids the flutter problem. He’s a theater critic, unlikely to change professions, and stuck (if one can ever use the word “stuck” with this city) in New York by virtue of that profession. He’s confined, like so many of us, by those proverbial silk chains, given that he makes enough money, gets to sleep with admirers if he wants to, doesn’t have to worry about food, and only carps about status—which is difficult, since he’s at the top of his pyramid. But the pyramid is too short for him, and there’s probably none tall enough for him, and seeing him try to climb is hilarious without being mean.

(Note: I read Max Jamison thanks to D.G. Myers’ post on The Hack, which says that Sheed wrote “… perhaps the best novel ever written about a critic. Max Jamison (1970) is about a Broadway theater critic who no longer believes in what he does for a living.” It used to be that we thrashed when we no longer believed in God. Now we thrash when we no longer believe in ourselves. What will we thrash about next?)

Susan Engel doesn't get the problems with schools, but she'll tell us to "Teach Your Teachers Well" anyway

Susan Engel’s Teach Your Teachers Well completely misses the point. She says:

And if we want smart, passionate people to become these great educators, we have to attract them with excellent programs and train them properly in the substance and practice of teaching.

But the problems with teacher training probably have less to do with teacher training and more to do with institutional structures and incentives within teaching itself.

She says, “Our best universities have, paradoxically, typically looked down their noses at education, as if it were intellectually inferior.” The reason they probably look down upon education is that most educators, in the sense of public school teachers, have little incentive to excel at teaching once they earn tenure; consequently, most don’t. There’s been a lot of material published on this subject:

Taken together, these pieces paint the proverbial damning indictment of how teaches are hired, promoted, and (not) fired. Once you’ve read them, it’s hard to accept the dissembling evident from teachers’ unions. Given the research cited regarding the importance of good teachers and how few incentives there are to become a good teacher, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that education majors and graduate students typically have incredibly low standardized test scores and GPAs, as shown in the following chart (2002; source):


Notice that education is at the bottom. Should it be much of a surprise that the best universities, which are almost by definition hyper-competitive, look down on the profession? Susan Engel thinks so.

If you change the incentives around teaching, the programs that teach teachers will change, and so will the skill of the teachers more generally. Over the last thirty years, the larger economy has undergone a vast shift toward greater competition and freer markets—a vast boon to consumers. The market for primary and secondary education has seen virtually none of this competition, or, to the extent it has seen such competition, has seen it on a district-by-district level, which requires geographical moves to take advantage of it.

This topic is one I attend to more than others because I think I’d like teaching high school and that I might even be good at it. But the pay is low, even relative to academia (which isn’t most remunerative field in existence), and, worse, there’s virtually no extrinsic reward for excellence. Almost anyone with a slightly competitive spirit is actively driven out; even those who have it begin with probably lose it when they realize they’ll make the same money for less work than those with it. And you’ll basically have to spend an extra year or two and lots of money to get an M.A. in education, which sounds like a worthless degree.

If you teach computer science in most districts, you make as much as someone who teaches P.E. You might notice that, according to‘s average salary by major table, education majors usually start at about $36,200 and make a mid-career average of $54,100. That’s probably low because it doesn’t take into account the extra time off teachers get during the summer. Still, notice the numbers for Math: $47,000 / $93,600, Computer Science: $56,400 / $97,400 or even my own major, English: $37,800 / $66,900.

But I doubt money will solve the problem without institutional reform, which is very slowly picking up. Susan Engel’s comments, however, only muddy the water with platitudes instead of real solutions.

EDIT: And if you want further hilarity as far as teaching incentives go, check out Edward Mason’s story, “Union blocks teacher bonuses.” As Radley Belko says, “The Boston teacher’s union is blocking an incentive bonus for exceptional teachers sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates and Exxon Mobil foundations unless the bonuses are distributed equally among all teachers, good, bad, and average.”

The computer, operating system, or word processor a writer or novelist uses doesn't matter much, although I still like Macs

Since around 2002, I don’t think that the computer a writer uses has mattered much for writers, chiefly because virtually all computers on the market since that time will do everything you need: conjure up a window and allow you to type as long as you humanly can. The same applies to most word processors: I can’t remember the last time I got a word processor to crash except for Microsoft Word, and even that’s a very rare event. Around the time Windows XP and Mac OS X 10.2 came out, operating system stability problems receded—in Linux, they often weren’t present in the first place—and by now both Windows XP and the more recent versions of OS X are so stable that writers barely have to think about their computers if those machines are used primarily for writing.

This post comes in response to Betsy Lerner, who recently observed that she doesn’t work for Best Buy and therefore doesn’t know if an aspiring writer should buy a netbook (as a professional writer and wannabe novelist, I have some opinions on this stuff). For those of you too lazy to click the netbook link, netbooks are small laptops that usually range from 7 to 11 inches in screen size. I’d argue against netbooks: they tend to have lousy screens, and I wouldn’t want to look at one for an extended period of time. A desktop sounds more reasonable.

I prefer desktops because they tend to be more reliable and cost less, as described at the link. The new 27″ iMacs are particularly nice, and the screen attached is as good on the eyes as one can get among consumer machines. But your computer doesn’t matter much: get a $400 Dell with a 20″ monitor and you’ll still have a very nice set up. What actually matters is the time you spend with your ass in the seat, not what you’re facing while you write.

I like Macs, as demonstrated by this shot of my desk. But Windows, Linux, or OS X are all decent; all have fine, stable word processors. For documents you don’t have to share regularly, Mellel is a sweet word processor, and it has the full screen mode some writers really like. By “full screen,” I mean that you can hit command-shift-f and bring up a screen that looks like this, except much bigger:

Mellel Full Screenshot

That’s a real screenshot: you don’t have any menus or distractions on your screen, just text and a scroll bar. I added the black border in WordPress. Some people also like Mac Freedom, a program that “disables networking on an Apple computer for up to eight hours at a time” and sounds like a useful way of Disconnecting Distraction. Spotlight is very cool, as is DevonThink Pro. Both are especially useful for nonfiction.

Nonetheless, that’s the .1% of writing that doesn’t really matter much; the 99.9% that does is sitting at your computer and writing. And you can’t buy that for any amount of money.

EDIT: See also Harold Bloom on word processors (and, for good measure, editing), which contains an appropriate passage I came across on this subject.

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