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Archive for February, 2021

A few years back I read The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. It’s a delightful combination of history and memoir, a record of journeys (physical and imagined) and a story of connections to family, to aesthetics, and to meaning. It’s the kind of book that leaves the reader feeling better educated and better acquainted with a bright mind. The White Road: a Journey Into Obsession is similar in that regard.

In a way The White Road is the story of porcelain. DeWaal travels to different places important to that history. The story begins with Jingdezhen, China, where pottery was made for centuries in large quantities and de Waal finds ancient shards and both ancient and contemporary stories and objects. He also visits Dresden, and traces the story of Augustus, who visited Versailles as a teenager and saw a porcelain pavilion and became obsessed with porcelain once he became king. De Waal presents the mathematician, Tschirnhaus, and the young alchemist, Böttger, who together reinvented porcelain for Augustus, the famous Meissen porcelain. He tells the story of English porcelain, of the Quaker apothecary William Cookworthy who determined — by reading and by quietly talking with people all over the southwest of England where he lived and worked, much as I picture de Waal doing on his journeys — that the types of clay and rock needed to create porcelain were in the nearby soil. He traveled to South Carolina to the mountains where the English took similar clay from the ground in Cherokee lands around the time America gained its independence. And to Dachau, where prisoners were forced to create Nazi porcelain.

Throughout the book, de Waal muses on his own history as an artist and his own relationship with porcelain as well. He also reveals his process, how ideas intersect and connections form. When he visits Dresden he makes an appointment to visit inside the Japanisches Palais, which Augustus built “in his porcelain madness,” and de Waal notes, “It has taken me over twenty years to get here to the palais. I had an ink sketch of one of these rooms pinned up above my wheel for a very long time. It was a challenge. Did I want to make porcelain that could be shuffled around, or could I make more of a demand on the world, shape a portion of it with more coherence?” And he tells the story of a porcelain room he created for an exhibition. These glimpses into his artistic process are found throughout The White Road.

He also shares that he often orders books, even expensive rare ones, when he’s unable to sleep: “Buying a book is my default holding position.” And his affection and empathy for these historical people he gets to know — for Tschirnhaus, Cookworthy, and Hans Landauer, a Dachau prisoner who wrote a memoir about working in the Allach porcelain factory — are palpable. I admire that he doesn’t just read history and report it, but feels it as well. I also like the way he chases connections. Towards the end of the book as he reviews where he’s been and what he’s covered he wonders about visiting Wittgenstein’s house because “Wittgenstein wrote a response to Goethe’s response to Newton on colour.”

He notes, “There are books in my room upstairs at the studio still in their packages, bought at night, necessary for all my journeys. I have the score of John Cage’s 4′ 33″ on top of the pile. I run my hands over this ridiculous heap of possibilities, of weeks of detours and re-routings.” After explaining where he thought he’d go with this book, and wondering “What have I missed?” he adds, “I’ve given up on my lists. My three white porcelain cups have become five objects of porcelain. My three white hills have become four. I’ve been taken elsewhere.”

And that is why I admire de Waal — he takes us elsewhere with him, allowing the connections to develop and sharing the process with us. This was a delightful read. I enjoyed it most when I sat with it for longer stretches rather than reading a couple of pages before sleep. Treat yourself joining de Waal as he immerses himself in his subject.

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I’ve been reading a few other things — I finished A Theory of Liberation by Gustavo Gutiérrez and started The Word is Very Near You by Martin Smith, and I am reading Edmund de Waal’s The White Road. But this past weekend I paused to read James Alan McPherson’s Hue and Cry. I read it because this is the latest book club selection for A Public Space (you may recall they kicked off what has now become a series of worldwide reading “together, apart” events with War & Peace in the spring.

Hue and Cry was James Alan McPherson‘s debut story collection, published in 1968. It is a tough read — about, as Yiyun Li said during the online discussion of the book, epics out of ordinary lives. She and Lan Chang both knew and studied with McPherson, and later taught alongside him, and their insights were really interesting to hear. Talking about “Hue and Cry,” the last story in the collection, the two discussed how overwhelming it felt to read. They shared that this feeling stems from the way McPherson is so honest about the characters, Margot and Eric, who want to change the world and very clearly cannot, and about the forces (as Change said) and fate (as Li said) of society overwhelming them. Hue and Cry also has strange, (Chang and Li called them Greek-chorus like) omniscient passages at the beginning and end of the story, and this voice asks the same question in the first and last lines:

“But if this is all there is, what is left of life and why are we alive?”

Chang notes that the rest of the book prepares us for how devastating this story is, because there are so many little ways the characters deal with struggle and disappointment. There is so much racism, and misogyny, and homophobia. Both Chang and Li commented that McPherson wasn’t these things; he simply noted them and wrote about them honestly.

They both admired “Gold Coast,” about a young Black janitor and an old Irish janitor in a building near Harvard square and said it just has everything a story should have. Several people commented during the discussion that “A Matter of Vocabulary” is striking; both of these stories are really honest about the hardships people face and the harshness in the world. Yiyun Li said something very interesting about the difference between William Trevor, who looked around at the a beautiful town or village and wrote about what was wrong underneath the beauty, and James McPherson, who looked around at the harsh world and wrote about the beauty underneath.

I liked “A Matter of Vocabulary,” which is about two young brothers working in a grocery store, and “On Trains,” which is very short but as Yiyun Li noted still conjures a whole world in a brief train trip. “A New Place” really seems to capture what it’s like to be young, disillusioned by the world and unsure of what to do with yourself but sure a change of scene might help.

I’m glad I read Hue and Cry, even though it is painful, especially at a time when the world’s harshness has been so in focus. But it was interesting to hear the perspective that if we look closely, even at the devastating things, we can see beauty.

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I’ve been reading Broad Band: The Untold Story of the Women Who Made the Internet by Claire L. Evans for a couple of weeks, partly because the Computer Scientist and I watched both seasons of The Mandalorian during that time, so it took me longer to read because I spent time watching TV. This book is another selection of the science librarians’ group that picked Why Fish Don’t Exist in the fall. The books have a similar style, in that both sound a little bit like something you’d hear on a podcast or public radio program. To some extent, both trace an author’s journey through a topic, although Broad Band focuses more clearly on the journey than the author.

In Evans’ case, the journey traces the lineage of women in computing, and more specifically, in the development of the internet. She begins well before the internet as we know it today, retelling some stories you may already know, like the contributions of Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper, for instance. I had a vague conception of women as human “computers,” and their important contributions to code breaking and other war work and the to the space program, from watching things like the film Hidden Figures and visiting Bletchley. Evans really makes it plain: as we transitioned from human computers to machines, women created programming, and were not only instrumental but dominant in the earliest days of computer science.

And then they weren’t. Evans elucidates that and then pulls lesser known stories out of the past, about the women in every decade who contributed to everything from mainframe computing to early networked information systems to gaming to online publishing to the DotCom era. It’s interesting, and there are many things to admire, like Stacy Horn’s creating and nurturing Echo, the NYC area cybercommunity that predated social media by decades and did it better. Or Jake Feinler and her team making the early internet orderly in ways that are still with us.

I was especially impressed with Wendy Hall, who pioneered hypertext linkbases, and then when the much more simplistic and seemingly pointless world wide web dominated the internet, adapted. And Cathy Marshall, whose product, NoteCards, still seems like a far more elegant solution to sharing ideas than “falling down the internet.”

Evans clearly admires her subjects, too. She describes talking with Marshall about her system for organizing her ideas for writing. Marshall tells her that she throws out what she doesn’t like, because “I don’t think you lose what you’ve written. It’s still in your head. Over time what you’re doing is changing what’s in your mind — what’s on paper is just incidental.” Evans writes, “She makes this comment offhand, but the insight knocks me out. That’s what software is, I realize: a system for changing your mind.”

The journey from woman to woman is fascinating, especially as she reaches the point where she’s interviewing people. However, I’m still processing the ending. In the span of a few paragraphs Evans supports two seemingly opposed ideas:

First, “As the Web commercialized, it became clear that the Internet was not going to liberate anyone from sexism, or for that matter from divisions of class, race, ability, and age. Instead, it often perpetuated the same patterns and dynamics of the meatspace world.” If that isn’t a firm enough stake in the ground, she goes on to say that “as digital and real life edge into near-complete overlap, the digital world inherits the problems of the real,” and notes the negative impacts ( like the proliferation of lies, social media’s impact on how we feel we should look and live, etc.) But then, she pivots. I can’t quite see how she leaps to: “When we create technologies, we don’t just mirror the world. We actually make it. And we can remake it . . . .”

Yes, she briefly outlines that learning from the past and the women who made their way despite the world’s challenges can help us see a better way. But I’m pretty stumped about how we can remake technology’s embodiment of our worst impulses without doing something about the real world first. An interesting read, but I think the ending is really the beginning of another book.

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