Links: Look at the text, unintended consequences, rap and poetry, sexting hysteria, LeBron James (?)

* “The writer’s first job is to describe. No matter what you’re writing, you’re a reporter first.” Also: “look at the text.” Very few people do that last sentence, ever, and the problem is especially pernicious on the Internet.

* The law of unintended consequences.

* “Americans Have Never Loved Poetry More—But They Call It Rap.” I would generalize “rap” to “music.” This essay is also compatible with the vision in Neal Stephenson’s Anathem.

* “Saying goodbye to God: Haredim apostates: When young ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel choose to break with their faith, they must learn how to function in an alien world.”

* “Why movie theaters should be more like rock concerts,” which may be my favorite Vox piece so far; overall it seems like TheAtlantic.com in that the average quality is low but the occasional gem makes it worth a place in the RSS feed. At some point I’m going to write an extended post about the role of concerts as ecstatic dance. This link can be read as related to the one immediately above.

* “Hysteria Over Sexting Reaches Peak Absurdity.”

* Unsurprisingly, “Authors Can’t Make Ends Meet,” which is a simple issue of supply and demand, regardless of what other factors may be at play.

* Seattle begins boring its next light rail tunnel.

* Normally I don’t find sports articles of any interest or value but will make an exception for “Just Undo It: The LeBron James Profile That Nike Killed.” Have I just been successfully marketed to?

A.S. Byatt and Tracy K. Smith speaking in New York

A.S. Byatt and poet Tracy K. Smith spoke in New York last night, and my favorite moment may have been Byatt’s comment on influence: she said, “I learn from dead people. I read books.” Which is accurate, simple, and too seldom mentioned. She also said, “If there is one thing I shall never do it is write a memoir.” But Byatt does watch viral YouTube videos, though I won’t offer the context. No word on whether she’s seen “Gangnam Style.” I wanted to listen to her indefinitely; she seemed low bullshit and subtly, Britishly funny in a way not conveyed by these quotes and perhaps not conveyed by any quotes. I would take her seminar despite the danger of being assigned Henry James and Melville.

IMG_2029Byatt also said that at some point “I got sick of realism. . . and I realized realism is only one way of putting prose together.” That remark—”putting prose together” was deliberate. English’s promiscuous borrowing also delights her (as it does pretty much anyone who really writes), and to that I would add that English has a sophisticated technical vocabulary offering a rich lode of metaphors not always available, or easily available, in other languages, unless they’ve borrowed from English (often in turn borrowing from other languages).

One senses that literature for her is urgent, as it is for Roland Mitchell in Possession (in one of my favorite moments in the novel, Roland Mitchell explains that he stole letters from the British Library “Because they were alive. They seemed urgent,” implying that much of what happens in the British Library and academia is so not urgent that one must wonder if and why it should happen at all) and many characters in The Children’s Book. She makes me want to be a better writer.

Smith said, in the context of mentorship, that having someone ask different kinds of questions of your work can be useful. She’s right, though I’d never conceptualized the issue in those terms, and it’s difficult to find people who will ask questions different but still useful than those you ask yourself.

Does she like Billy Collins?

Harold Bloom's hero-poets

For reasons not obvious to me I’ve been reading and re-reading a lot of Harold Bloom’s work lately, and in The Anxiety of Influence I came across this passage:

But poets, or at least the strongest among them, do not read necessarily as even the strongest of critics read. Poets are neither ideal nor common readers, neither Arnoldian nor Johnsonian. They tend not to think, as they read: “This is dead, this is living, this is the poetry of X.” Poets, by the time they have grown strong, do not read the poetry of X, for really strong poets can read only themselves. For them, to be judicious is to be weak, and to compare, exactly and fairly, is to be not elect.

There’s something pleasing and ridiculous about the “strongest” poets being described in the same language one would use for a discus hurler or hockey player. Instead of being writers trying to put words on the page, the poet is made into a Blakean figure who strides the landscape of the mind. If you misread this passage, you might skim and find that poets “tend not to think, as they read,” which would be a challenge, since reading seems to be by definition a form of reading.

But if poets aren’t reading other poets since they can only read themselves, what are they reading when they read, say, Shakespeare? Themselves into Shakespeare? If so, I would guess that either everyone or no one does this, and I can’t say which is more likely.

And what does that odd phrase, “to be not elect” mean? Apparently there are at least three classes: the elect, who the strong poets are, the plebeians somewhere down below, and maybe some people pressing their faces against the glass face of the elect. I would guess myself to be way down there, relative to poets, assuming one buys this model of the poetic universe, which I’m not sure I do.

Anyway, one sees the ranking technique, the knowing allusions (“neither Arnoldian nor Johnsonian”) and the mystical throughout the Bloom I’ve read. In Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, Bloom argues that Shakespeare invented the way we feel, think about feeling, and be. I can mostly respond: maybe. The book is overly pervasive, as I find it hard to believe that we wouldn’t have developed modern consciousness without Shakespeare, which is reading against Bloom, but I like the ideas nonetheless. I feel like I’m playing again, instead of working, and that I should have a glass of wine or maybe sherry while I’m reading Bloom. It’s also fun to find a modern critic who isn’t afraid to say something, to make judgments, to acknowledge that some writers are better than others, and not to apologize for it, even when Bloom effectively parodies himself by saying things like “to be judicious is to be weak.” In that case, count me among the weak, or among those who would ask, “what do you mean by judicious?” and then launch into a Wittgensteinian argument.

Harold Bloom’s hero-poets

For reasons not obvious to me I’ve been reading and re-reading a lot of Harold Bloom’s work lately, and in The Anxiety of Influence I came across this passage:

But poets, or at least the strongest among them, do not read necessarily as even the strongest of critics read. Poets are neither ideal nor common readers, neither Arnoldian nor Johnsonian. They tend not to think, as they read: “This is dead, this is living, this is the poetry of X.” Poets, by the time they have grown strong, do not read the poetry of X, for really strong poets can read only themselves. For them, to be judicious is to be weak, and to compare, exactly and fairly, is to be not elect.

There’s something pleasing and ridiculous about the “strongest” poets being described in the same language one would use for a discus hurler or hockey player. Instead of being writers trying to put words on the page, the poet is made into a Blakean figure who strides the landscape of the mind. If you misread this passage, you might skim and find that poets “tend not to think, as they read,” which would be a challenge, since reading seems to be by definition a form of reading.

But if poets aren’t reading other poets since they can only read themselves, what are they reading when they read, say, Shakespeare? Themselves into Shakespeare? If so, I would guess that either everyone or no one does this, and I can’t say which is more likely.

And what does that odd phrase, “to be not elect” mean? Apparently there are at least three classes: the elect, who the strong poets are, the plebeians somewhere down below, and maybe some people pressing their faces against the glass face of the elect. I would guess myself to be way down there, relative to poets, assuming one buys this model of the poetic universe, which I’m not sure I do.

Anyway, one sees the ranking technique, the knowing allusions (“neither Arnoldian nor Johnsonian”) and the mystical throughout the Bloom I’ve read. In Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human, Bloom argues that Shakespeare invented the way we feel, think about feeling, and be. I can mostly respond: maybe. The book is overly pervasive, as I find it hard to believe that we wouldn’t have developed modern consciousness without Shakespeare, which is reading against Bloom, but I like the ideas nonetheless. I feel like I’m playing again, instead of working, and that I should have a glass of wine or maybe sherry while I’m reading Bloom. It’s also fun to find a modern critic who isn’t afraid to say something, to make judgments, to acknowledge that some writers are better than others, and not to apologize for it, even when Bloom effectively parodies himself by saying things like “to be judicious is to be weak.” In that case, count me among the weak, or among those who would ask, “what do you mean by judicious?” and then launch into a Wittgensteinian argument.

Billy Collins and Elmore Leonard at the Tucson Festival of Books

The Tucson Festival of Books began with a mystery friend—the designation is at the request of said friend—and I wandering the booths. Some monkish types tried to convince me to buy a copy of the Bhagavad Gita that I already had. We attended a nonfiction panel where one member spoke of the danger of “Not realizing the potential of the moment” and capturing “the spirit of the event” and asking “what is truth?” During the talk, I read the first 40 pages of Out of Sight.

The food tent came next, and with it most notably some excellent caramel corn:

caramel-corn2

A few hundred people heard Elmore Leonard, but the guy who interviewed him wasn’t particularly skillful (with questions about Westerns—Leonard hasn’t written them in decades—and ones that boil down to, “What writers have influenced you?” His answer, which I could’ve predicted, was The Friends of Eddie Coyle; see this post) and called Leonard a “man who needs no introduction.” Then why introduce him? Anyway, Leonard did say that he shifted from writing Westerns to “Easterns” and that Arizona highways in the 50s were filled with good stories that he used in his novels and stories.elmore_leonard_signing2

The novel he’s writing now is set on the East Coast of Africa, which is a greater stretch for Leonard than some previous novels because he doesn’t know how to relate to the story as well. But his forthcoming novel, Road Dogs, will be released in May and follows the more familiar teerritory Jack Foley of Out of Sight along with a few other characters from books I haven’t read. Expect to read more about Road Dogs in this space.

Leonard’s best response came from a question about his characters’ morality or lack thereof, when Leonard said “I have a kind feeling of all my characters… I like my characters, but I think most of them are just dumb.” He’s also difficult to imitate because “you have to imitate the emotions behind them,” which too many people seem to discount. An audience member asked about redemption and Leonard answered about money; he also repeated the advice he’s given to directors of movies based on his books: When someone delivers a funny line that’s not intentionally funny, don’t cut to someone laughing. To Leonard, that’s part of what ruined the movie version of Be Cool, which is better as a book.

The last speaker on Saturday, Billy Collins was a quiet riot, knowing that the better part of jokes often consists of holding back and the better part of delivery consists of practice. His reading was like a big-deal boxing match, with a few palookas warming up the crowd before the main card that served chiefly to highlight Collins’ skill. He took Leonard’s advice by not smiling as he said, “If it’s wrong to be writing to a reader, I don’t want to be right.” Next month is apparently national poetry month, and Collins said, “If you name a day or a week or a month after something, you know it’s in decline.” There is no national TV week.

His poems were wonderful; in “Tension,” one got the impression that Collins is a rule-breaker of the best sort. He’s wry and self-aware, as in “The Trouble with Poetry:”

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,

[…]

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks

He’s contributing to the proliferation of poetry, so it’s obviously not so great a problem, and yet the poem shifts into a brief comment on life, when he mentions a book that “I carried in a side pocket of my uniform / up and down the treacherous halls of high school,” implying that perhaps poetry helped him to become a poetic thief and thus to encourage “the writing of more poetry.”billy_collins2

The tongue-in-cheek aspect continued through Collins’ poems; he read one called “On Turning Ten” that he said he wrote because he “wanted to make fun of poets who write midlife crisis death poems.” So there’s an elegy to all that’s lost upon attaining one’s tenth year. In “The Lanyard,” looking up the word “lanyard” in a dictionary functions as a “cookie nibbled by a French novelist.” The poem compares a child making a lanyard for his mother in payment for all she’s done:

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
SHe nursed me in many a sickroom,
lifted teaspoons of medicine to my lips,
set cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light
and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

The mock conceit reminds one of the disparity that must exist between most parents and their children, which can only be repaid by passing it on. But for Collins, the issue isn’t a heavy burden, or if it is, it should be addressed lightly, in a poem like “The Lanyard” that is aware of its own absurdity and therefore becomes more real in exchange of “thousands of meals” for a lanyard, “which I made with a little help from a counselor.”

I wish Collins’ attitude had been shared by the nonfiction panel. Alas: we can’t all be so reasonable.

If nothing else, being induced to read Collins made the Festival worthwhile. Hopefully I learned something and, to paraphrase something its participants said, this post captures the spirit of the event.

"Dippy Verses," John Barth, and Tolkien

John Barth’s collection The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction contains an excellent piece on what I take to be the novel as vacuum cleaner, or, to use his title, “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses.” A reviewer called four lines—in his estimation, three and half—of verse/poetry at the beginning of Barth’s novel Sabbatical: A Romance “dippy,” leading him point out that a) of course they’re dippy, given that they’re a joke between the protagonist and his wife, b) they’re intended ironically, and c) they’re part of a novel, a genre that is by its nature pastiche, and therefore should be considered part of its whole and not poetry as such. If poems within a novel happen to work as standalone poems, all the better, and if not, they should be evaluated as part of the whole.

“The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” is worth reading in full, especially for Barth’s wonderful extended metaphor on osprey nests, conservationists, shoal lights, and solutions, which is too long to repeat in full here, and to summarize it would be to admire a small bird in the wild, kill it with a shotgun, and then bring the results home to prove how beautiful the bird is. Much criticism works this way to a lesser extent anyway, but in this case it seems particularly egregious.

The topic arises in part because an upcoming conference session on Tolkien will focus on his poetry, which probably would not be judged much good by the Modernist standards of the mid-Twentieth Century, but that’s of little importance: for one, he wasn’t trying to write modernist poetry—he was presenting poetry in its Medieval and older role—and for two, he was working from pre-printing press cultures. Part of Tolkien’s beauty is the extent to which he recreates that earlier time. When books and parchment are exceedingly expensive, transport tenuous at best (see The Pursuit of Glory: 1648 – 1815 for more on historical developments in that field), and history transmitted generationally from person to person, verse made memorizing and disseminating oral information easier. Some scholars have speculated that the reason for the variations in titles in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the like, where references to “giant-killer Hermes” and “Prince Telemachus” abound, those two picked at random from a page of The Odyssey. Tolkien’s doing something similar. The distinctions we have among genres and among fiction and nonfiction weren’t well developed until sometime around the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century, as Michael McKeon argues in The Origins of the English Novel. Therefore, to characters in Middle-earth, poetry is not just artistic, but historical documentation.

I’m only too happy to see Tolkien’s poetry analyzed as such, but what’s embedded in Lord of the Rings should be judged a component of a novel, that most slippery and contaminated of art forms. I don’t know what if anything Barth thought of Tolkien, but his essay more than defends the aesthetics of judging the works within works that many novels contain.

As for The Friday Book more generally, it’s probably the most hilarious literary essay collection I’ve read, particularly because Barth is as skeptical of and engaged with the writing of essays as he is with the writing of novels. At one point, he says “[…] I don’t much enjoy analyzing my own [work]. It’s sobering enough to see what curious things my novels say to other people; never mind what they say to me.” Elsewhere, the simple and profound gets wrapped in the cloak of the ridiculous, or perhaps vice versa, as when he notes “Of painful searching and futile running around, our literature is unavoidably full […]” Above I implied that “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” cannot be given in even an adequate form save in the one it takes, as with most good essays. It did, however, leave me with deeper and stranger thoughts about its subjects than when I began, which is the test that matters. That many apply to other fields—including Tolkien—is just another bonus.

“Dippy Verses,” John Barth, and Tolkien

John Barth’s collection The Friday Book: Essays and Other Nonfiction contains an excellent piece on what I take to be the novel as vacuum cleaner, or, to use his title, “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses.” A reviewer called four lines—in his estimation, three and half—of verse/poetry at the beginning of Barth’s novel Sabbatical: A Romance “dippy,” leading him point out that a) of course they’re dippy, given that they’re a joke between the protagonist and his wife, b) they’re intended ironically, and c) they’re part of a novel, a genre that is by its nature pastiche, and therefore should be considered part of its whole and not poetry as such. If poems within a novel happen to work as standalone poems, all the better, and if not, they should be evaluated as part of the whole.

“The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” is worth reading in full, especially for Barth’s wonderful extended metaphor on osprey nests, conservationists, shoal lights, and solutions, which is too long to repeat in full here, and to summarize it would be to admire a small bird in the wild, kill it with a shotgun, and then bring the results home to prove how beautiful the bird is. Much criticism works this way to a lesser extent anyway, but in this case it seems particularly egregious.

The topic arises in part because an upcoming conference session on Tolkien will focus on his poetry, which probably would not be judged much good by the Modernist standards of the mid-Twentieth Century, but that’s of little importance: for one, he wasn’t trying to write modernist poetry—he was presenting poetry in its Medieval and older role—and for two, he was working from pre-printing press cultures. Part of Tolkien’s beauty is the extent to which he recreates that earlier time. When books and parchment are exceedingly expensive, transport tenuous at best (see The Pursuit of Glory: 1648 – 1815 for more on historical developments in that field), and history transmitted generationally from person to person, verse made memorizing and disseminating oral information easier. Some scholars have speculated that the reason for the variations in titles in The Iliad, The Odyssey, and the like, where references to “giant-killer Hermes” and “Prince Telemachus” abound, those two picked at random from a page of The Odyssey. Tolkien’s doing something similar. The distinctions we have among genres and among fiction and nonfiction weren’t well developed until sometime around the Seventeenth or Eighteenth Century, as Michael McKeon argues in The Origins of the English Novel. Therefore, to characters in Middle-earth, poetry is not just artistic, but historical documentation.

I’m only too happy to see Tolkien’s poetry analyzed as such, but what’s embedded in Lord of the Rings should be judged a component of a novel, that most slippery and contaminated of art forms. I don’t know what if anything Barth thought of Tolkien, but his essay more than defends the aesthetics of judging the works within works that many novels contain.

As for The Friday Book more generally, it’s probably the most hilarious literary essay collection I’ve read, particularly because Barth is as skeptical of and engaged with the writing of essays as he is with the writing of novels. At one point, he says “[…] I don’t much enjoy analyzing my own [work]. It’s sobering enough to see what curious things my novels say to other people; never mind what they say to me.” Elsewhere, the simple and profound gets wrapped in the cloak of the ridiculous, or perhaps vice versa, as when he notes “Of painful searching and futile running around, our literature is unavoidably full […]” Above I implied that “The Prose and Poetry of It All, or, Dippy Verses” cannot be given in even an adequate form save in the one it takes, as with most good essays. It did, however, leave me with deeper and stranger thoughts about its subjects than when I began, which is the test that matters. That many apply to other fields—including Tolkien—is just another bonus.

Literature and science fiction redux, with taste as a bonus

Science Fiction, literature, and the haters spawned great comments and e-mails, including responses from both the agents I referenced. The one who gave a minimum word count said that the agency he and a partner founded is relatively new, and the advice regarding word count and sequels comes from editors, and until they have more experience, they’re hewing to those guidelines. The other agent said that calling Pearle Transit “too literary” was a poor choice of words and that, although he admired aspects of it, the novel didn’t get him excited. Both replies, in other words, were reasonable and show that the agents care. Other would-be authors might want to take note: rejection is rarely as personal as it might seem. In addition, I’m reminded of this passage from Orwell, who discussed the problems with book reviewing:

[…] the chances are that eleven out of the twelve books will fail to rouse in [the reviewer] the faintest spark of interest. They are not more than ordinarily bad, they are merely neutral, lifeless, and pointless. If he were not paid to do so he would never read a line of any of them, and in nearly every care the only truthful review he could write would be: “This book inspires in me no thoughts whatever.”

Most agents probably feel like that about most books. I just wrote a post expressing how Doctor Faustus roused nothing it me, though I perceive its technical merits. The latter can’t even be said of A Confederacy of Dunces, though it’s widely admired.

In other reactions, several people, including Big Dumb Object and agent Colleen Lindsay, pointed out the Clarke Awards shortlists. Thanks for the tip, and I’ll be reading some of them, although 2008 winner Richard Morgan’s first book, Altered Carbon, embodied some of the negative qualities discussed in my post. Still, very few authors write first books that are their best, and Thirteen is in my queue. I also noticed that Cryptonomicon was on the shortlist for 2000, but it’s not really science fiction.

One other thing I noted was the absence of any correspondents who said, “This is a great book that deserves a spot in the literary pantheon.” Likewise, I’d hoped for citations or links to essays that get deep inside great books. Where is the James Wood (see here too) of science fiction? Perhaps he already exists in Stanislaw Lem—his book Microworlds should arrive soon—but if the genre has as much material as some of the commenters and e-mailers say, it should also have its great critics. To paraphrase Saul Bellow without his racial connotations, I’d love to read them.

One commenter went in the opposite direction and said: “The reason as I see it that almost all science fiction writing falls short of literary merit is that its audience wants it that way.” I’m not convinced: although I pointed out a general trend toward the lack of literary merit in science fiction, it’s a law, and if it is, I’m wary of making correlation into causation. Furthermore, plenty of bad literary fiction exists, just like bad science fiction—but the literary canon pushes the upper bounds of knowledge and language in ways and volumes that science fiction hasn’t, at least to my knowledge so far. That’s in part why I’m writing these posts: it’s a process of searching, and I’m trying not to assume the very opinions I’m asking about it.

A few correspondents wrote that I had no idea what I was talking about and, implicitly, that there is no such thing as literary merit. I suppose both are possible, but they seem highly improbable; stating that there is an element of opinion in every artistic judgment is not the same as believing that every opinion is the same, and I also referred those writers to the “big three” books I’d mentioned about art and writing, which are the best reflections on what makes great literature and what makes great literature great I’ve found. Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel belongs there too. Alas, there is no short checklist that can be easily explained, and so the stack of reading necessary to really enter this conversation is intimidatingly high, and many of the accusers do not appear to have done it; such correspondents might not see the river because they’re in a valley and don’t have the fortitude to climb the mountain. Granted, at the top of the mountain they might look in the opposite direction I do, in which case I’d like to hear their opinions. Along these “everything is relative” lines, I once argued to a professor that Shakespeare and Joyce were way overrated and only read for historical reasons and because other people had read them.

Oh, how I want to take that back.

In Richard Feynman’s hilarious Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he writes about his lessons in art and his visit to the Sistine Chapel, when he recognizes the masterpieces and the lesser works without a guide:

This was a terrific excitement to me, that I also could tell the difference between a beautiful work of art and one that’s not, without being able to define it. As a scientist you always think you know what you’re doing, so you tend to distrust the artist who says, “It’s great,” or “It’s no good,” and then is not able to explain why, as Jerry did with those drawings I took him. But here I was, sunk: I could do it too!*

To be sure, there is an element of opinion in virtually any form of art and criticism, and just as there is in some fields more scientific: in economics, should we value making the resource pie larger through public policy like lower tax rates and flatter tax rates, or should we try and distribute what we have more evenly? Nonetheless, some people simply know much more about the trade-offs involved, and by the same token, some know far more about books and literature than others. The closer you get to hard sciences that are describing rather than interpreting the world—math, physics, chemistry, and the like—the farther you get from pure opinion, but as soon as you reach the application phase, judgment calls arise again: what would be more useful to sell—product derived from X or from Y? What would be a more useful use of physicists during World War II: having them build mechanical calculators and the like, or having them work on the atomic bomb? Someone had to make those decisions, and they’re closer in some respects to artistic choices than to ones regarding proof and experimentation.

In art and literature, there aren’t experiments, but taste exists. Not everyone’s is the same but not everyone’s is equal, either. Mine is well-developed enough to have some opinions of at least some validity, I hope, and I’m looking for others who can say the same, and who know something of science fiction—hence my appreciation of those who pointed out the Clarke Awards and made other suggestions. If I read through the Clarke books and decide I’m wrong, you’ll probably hear about it in a year or two. Although I’m not a scientist, I do have interest in all intellectually honest fields and all intellectually honest practitioners in those fields, and so I turn again to Feynman, who described what he wants to instill in Caltech grads and what they should inculcate in themselves: “It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards.” Literary critics should hold themselves to the same standards, and I strive to. How well I succeed I will leave to others to argue.


* Although I quote poetry sometimes, I almost never analyze it here because I’m like the person without a real sense of what great visual art is: not having read widely and deeply enough in poetry to have developed my sense for what makes it bad, mediocre, good, and great poetry, I’m mostly silent, though appreciative.


EDIT: Added Feynman quote to the last paragraph.

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