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John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
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Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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About John Holbo

John Holbo is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the National University of Singapore. He works on philosophy of literature and literary theory; Wittgenstein and Nietzsche; also, science fiction, fantasy, film, comics; also, more highbrow literary stuff. He blogs at Crooked Timber and John & Belle Have A Blog. Some of his writings are here. The Valve is pretty much his baby, and he's pretty much Editor-in-Chief.

Email Address: jholbo@mac.com
Website: http://examinedlife.typepad.com/johnbelle/


Posts by John Holbo

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Jameson On Hunter: How Not to Criticize the Historicization of Theory

Posted by John Holbo on 06/14/08 at 10:00 AM

I’m reading a Critical Inquiry critical exchange between Ian Hunter and Frederic Jameson - a response to Hunter’s “History of Theory” piece from CI in 2006. Here’s an old post in which Sean McCann discussed it. I did, too, somewhere or other. And this Long Sunday thread sure got all hot and bothered.

Actually, I haven’t gotten to the Hunter yet. But consider this passage from Jameson’s “How Not To Historicize Theory”:

it is the depth model in general and all manner of hermeneutic practices that are Hunter’s targets here—the reduction, in other words, of facts and historical realities to concepts that have no empirical object, like society, culture, revolution, class, language, history, capitalism, and so on. This particular line of attack is enough to link Hunter to the traditional Anglo-American empiricism that theory set out to demolish in the first place, and indeed the words positive, empirical, and research are here everywhere valorized and emphasized. (566)

It took me three passes before it even occurred to me what Jameson is really saying here: namely, that society, culture, revolution, class, language, history and capitalism are clear examples of subjects that can’t be studied empirically. You can’t do ‘research’ on these subjects. Ergo, Hunter - who is interested in doing empirical research - must not be interested in these things. But obviously these are important things. Therefore, Hunter’s approach is wrong.

What clued me in was a line on the next page: “To such famous nominalistic pronouncements as “there is no such thing as society” and “the Palestinians don’t exist,” we should now presumably add the proposition that capitalism doesn’t exist either.” All this charged to Hunter’s account. But surely it is reasonable to draw a distinction between Tories and nominalists. Jameson is arguing that if you are an empiricist, let alone a positivist, you can’t believe in society. I imagine that would come as a surprise to Auguste Comte, who is generally considered the father of positivism and sociology. (There’s also the difficulty that Hunter isn’t a positivist, but that’s fairly small potatoes.)

Continue reading "Jameson On Hunter: How Not to Criticize the Historicization of Theory"

Friday, May 16, 2008

Percy Gloom and Hieronymus B.

Posted by John Holbo on 05/16/08 at 10:50 PM

I haven’t been doing enough comics blogging. But I just read a couple titles that seem to go together:

Percy Gloom [amazon], by Cathy Malkasian. You can visit the book site here.  Not too much there.

... And

Hieronymus B., by Ulf K. [amazon]. Top Shelf has a generous preview. (I posted briefly about this before.)

I really liked them both while feeling that both could be better. It’s a bit hard to put my finger on it.

Let start with the visual basics. We have two somewhat hapless protagonists - characters to whom things happen, mostly, rather than characters who do things. They are both prematurely aged children/innocently child-like old men. They both have big round heads and little bodies. I’m starting to think that Charlie Brown is an archetype. The bald-headed kid who gets the football yanked, but who somehow salvages some degree of philosophic dignity. Maybe there is something Charlie Brownish inherent in the comics medium. A simple circle face on a stick body. It really doesn’t get more iconically economical than that. Chris Ware, anyone?

Continue reading "Percy Gloom and Hieronymus B."

French Theory

Posted by John Holbo on 05/16/08 at 12:05 AM

I’m reading French Theory, by Francois Cusset, freshly translated by an old grad school friend of mine, Jeff Fort. Who has evidently landed on his feet as a UC Davis French prof. Nice work, Jeff!

It’s been given one of those very American subtitles characteristic of commodity histories. (’how the smelt saved Western Civilization’. That sort of thing.) In this case; ‘how Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & co. transformed the intellectual life of the United States.’ Rather an ironic commentary on the commodification of Theory, I suppose. (In French it was ’et les mutations de la vie intellectuale aux Etats-Unis.)

The book has been praised by Stanley Fish. (As linked here by Bill B.) And it has an effusive blurb from Derrida. (It was originally published in 2003, so he had a chance to read it before he died, I presume.)

“In such a difficult genre, full of traps and obstacles, French Theory is a success and a remarkable book in every respect: it is fair, balanced, and informed. I am sure this book will become the reference for both sides of the Atlantic.”

The book appears to be selling quite well. It’s ranked an astonishing 6,000 on Amazon at the moment. That’s really good for a book on this sort of subject.

Continue reading "French Theory"

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Talking Pathetic Fallacy Blues, a.k.a. Gary

Posted by John Holbo on 05/08/08 at 12:55 AM

And here I was, so sure Lawrence’s post would be about that scene in Willingham’s Jack of Fables in which Jack meets the Pathetic Fallacy, a morose, balding entity capable of bringing things to anthropomorphic life - who wants to be known as ‘Gary’, or possibly ‘Lance’.


Sunday, May 04, 2008

I Remember The Way That You Smiled

Posted by John Holbo on 05/04/08 at 08:07 AM

Y’know, they just down make callow, ironic folk-hop for 20-something white hipsters like they used to. At least that’s one theory. From a Pitchfork review of the Deluxe reissue of Beck’s Odelay:

From the nervy opening chords of “Devil’s Haircut” (based on the garage-rock classic “I Can Only Give You Everything") to the signature sax riff of “The New Pollution” (lovingly pilfered from forgotten tenor player Joe Thomas’s “Venus"), Odelay is the album every record-diving MPC-phile wants to make. Though the LP was a huge commercial success, its sound was never successfully equaled by savvy opportunists. Chalk it up to the increasingly complicated legalities of sampling, as Beck explained in a 2005 interview: “Back [on Odelay] it was basically me writing chord changes and melodies, and then endless records being scratched and little sounds coming off the turntable. Now it’s prohibitively difficult and expensive to justify your one weird little horn blare that happens for half of a second one time in a song and makes you give away 70% of the song and $50,000.” And, of course, it’s the little lifts - the sex-ed dialogue on “Where It’s At”, the snippet of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony #8 in B Minor” on “High 5”, the dozens (hundreds?) of unique drum hits and perfectly placed sonic scribbles - that makes Odelay such a deep and engaging listen even after all the headphone sessions and Best Album of the 90s accolades. Tellingly, when Beck and the Dust Brothers tried to recreate their signature style on 2005’s Guero they couldn’t pull it off, inadvertently reinforcing Odelay’s lasting appeal in the process.

This is interesting. Could it really be true that lawyers killed that signature mid-90’s alt-sampling sound? Or is Beck making excuses for the fact that Guero was so-so? If so, chalk up another loss in the IP wars. And, once again, it would seem to be economically self-defeating for the greedy rent-seekers. It’s obviously stupid to insist on pricing your half-second horn blares right out of the market.

I happen to have been listening to Odelay on the nice headphones, noodling around with Photoshop. That’s a satisfying combination.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Edward Champion on Sven Birkerts and the Frightening Fitzroya

Posted by John Holbo on 04/28/08 at 10:14 PM


Friday, April 25, 2008

The End of Argument

Posted by John Holbo on 04/25/08 at 05:02 AM

ProofThis is a follow up to last week’s Against Argument post - in which I suggest that humanists, perhaps especially in literary studies, tend to deploy a somewhat misleading rhetoric of rigorous argumentation, when what they are doing would be better described in other terms. Rohan Maitzen provided a passage from Leslie Stephen that nicely expresses what I am getting at:

He shows us certain facts as they appear to him. If we are so constituted as to be unable to see what he sees, he can go no further. He cannot proceed to argue and analyse, and apply an elaborate logical apparatus. There is the truth, and we must make what we can of it. But, on the other hand, so far as we are in sympathy with him, the proof - if it be a proof - has all the cogency of direct vision. He has couched our dull eyes, drawn back the veil which hid from us the certain aspect of the world, and henceforward our views of life and the world will be more or less changed, because the bare scaffolding of fact which we previously saw will now be seen in the light of keener perceptions than our own.

Adam Kotsko objected that, even though this is what I am saying, and even though this is plausible, still what I am saying is highly implausible. The logic evades me, and the very most I can make of the complaint is the following: if this - i.e. the Stephen thing - is what humanists call ‘argument’, then they are not deluded about, or falsely advertising their ‘argumentative’ practices. They are using ‘argument’ in a broader sense. I guess this is a coherent supposition about how humanists use the word ‘argument’. Certainly it does happen. I have a new book from Princeton Architectural Press called Proof (amazon; Princeton). It contains the winning entries (and some honorable mentions) in an annual Young Architects Forum competition. Apparently there is always a theme, and this time it was proof. (Previous themes: instability; if-then.) You won’t be surprised to hear that the notions of proof you need, to stretch them to fit these contest entries, must be pretty elastic. The Stephen thing. And I quite liked three or four contest winners and hated three others. That’s what you look for in an architecture book, so fine.

But obviously this is not what I am talking about when I say that, often, humanists pretend to be arguing when really they are not. Let me just provide an example. (I would have thought this was pretty obvious, but Adam K insists that he would be very surprised if it really happens. So there is nothing for it but to offer proof.)

Continue reading "The End of Argument"

Friday, April 18, 2008

Against Argument?

Posted by John Holbo on 04/18/08 at 04:31 AM

Stephen Burt has an interesting post at the Columbia UP blog: “Against Argument”.

The academy thrives on argument, at least in the traditional humanities: arguments get us noticed. Travel guides and scientific discoveries may both sell books, but to get attention within the realms of the arts and the humanities now, one almost has to make an extended argument: to take issue with some dominant view, to explain why what we already knew was wrong, or (especially in literary studies) to demonstrate some big connection between features within some literature, and features of history or (more rarely) philosophy or natural science outside it.

There’s nothing wrong with making extended arguments, of course, and I spend much of my time (at least during the school year) teaching our students how to do just that. Yet our sustained interest in arguments might be making us keep at arm’s length, or under a cloud, the reasons why we care for the arts at all, the smaller-scale features that distinguish works of art from one another, the features which help us explain (if it can be explained—can it?) why we care for this one, not that one.


Ten years ago twentysomethings in top graduate programs were being taught (wrongly) to look down on an influential book called Understanding Poetry even as they were reading, and recommending (rightly), a then-new book called Understanding Comics, a book (itself in comics form) that remains the foundation for the arguments about that art form advanced by groups like the Michigan Comix Collective.

Yes, if you admire McCloud it is quite pointless to turn around and snub Brooks - at least on the usual kick-the-New Criticism-even-though-it’s-been-down-for-50-years methodological grounds. But I don’t quite agree with the first bit. You might think I am going to balk at ‘against argument’. But actually, in these sorts of contexts - yeah, ok. The problem I have is really twofold: first, I don’t buy Burt’s opposition between ‘argument’ and ‘description’. What you want is: discernment, insight. He and I might compromise on ‘good close reading’. (I don’t think I’m actually disagreeing with what he is getting at.) This is a small bone to pick, then. But there is a point to picking it. Because ‘being insightful’ isn’t really a method. ‘Noticing interesting things’ is not really a method. And yet it is teachable, to some degree. And is, to a very considerable degree, the thing we really want to teach. This brings me to my second point. I do not at all agree that the humanities ‘thrives on argument’. Probably this is my philosophy department bias showing through. But I think it would be more accurate to complain that humanists always say they are arguing, but often they are doing, instead, precisely that thing Burt says they should be doing instead of arguing - being insightful, describing, close reading (call it what you will). I think this tends to be an expression of discipline envy. Someone asks you what you are doing. You say ‘I am trying to construct a rigorous argument’. That sounds better than ‘I am trying to be insightful’, or ‘I’m reading carefully’. But, actually, the latter would be truer. And, on the whole, insights tend to be more insightful if they are not cluttered up by erroneous advertisements about their argumentative status. So I would say: let’s be ‘against saying you are arguing when you are not’.

In a way, it was precisely this problem that doomed the New Criticism to its bad reputation. Brooks and others were careful readers, but they - rather defensively - felt obliged to pretend that there were strong arguments warranting their practices, i.e. their hermetic attitude towards individual texts. In fact, the arguments were all pretty terrible. Still, Brooks really understood poetry.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Who wrote the Ur-Foghorn; or, I hated to tell Henery falsehoods about chickens, but …

Posted by John Holbo on 04/11/08 at 03:46 AM

Worrying about the Ur-Hamlet is all well and good. (To be or not to be. Be, that is.)

But this should not distract us from other, equally essential genealogical researches.

... It is at this early point in the Foghorn saga that even Bob McKimson himself falls victim to the vagaries of recall, because by the time he began being interviewed in the mid-1970s (along with Clampett, Jones and many other Warner veterans), his memory was clouded by both the passage of time and the enormous fame that another old-time radio character, one Senator Claghorn, had enjoyed from 1945-49 on the highly respected comedy program The Fred Allen Show.

McKimson recalled telling Foster that he was listening to the radio and had heard Claghorn. He also believed that “Claghorn” had taken his vocal delivery from the old, deaf sheriff on the early variety show, Blue Monday Jamboree.

The Jamboree, like much of early West Coast radio, came out of San Francisco, before the show moved to Los Angeles in 1933, when network lines became operational in Los Angeles. At that point most of its cast began Hollywood acting careers, including character man Jack Clifford who originated The Sheriff. Clifford continued appearing as the Sheriff all through the 1930s on local LA programs like Comedy Stars of Hollywood, Komedy Kapers and The Gilmore Circus. He also played bit parts in many films.

The Sheriff - who would yell obnoxiously, talk over people, and repeat what he’d just said, prefacing each reiteration with “I say...” - was indeed the inspiration for Foghorn. But it must be emphasized, only for the first cartoon, Walky Talky Hawky. (Actually a major running gag for The Sheriff - bad puns based on mis-hearing what somebody was saying to him - was never a part of Foghorn Leghorn’s character.) But as McKimson mis-remembered it in his later years, he and Foster merged the two characters - the old sheriff and Senator Claghorn - and made them parts of the rooster.

But the plain fact is that the dialogue-track for Walky Talky Hawky was recorded on January 13, 1945, a full ten months before the debut of Senator Claghorn on Fred Allen’s New York-based show ...

via cartoonbrew

Friday, March 28, 2008

How to read things so easy to read that you don’t even need to be able to read to read them

Posted by John Holbo on 03/28/08 at 12:26 PM

Top Shelf comics - fine purveyors of sequential sequence image stories - has good new stuff. There’s a new Owly book. I’ve praised those before.

My daughter, Zoë, delivered up a classic deadpan review: "These books are good because even kids who can’t read can read them." True. Basically, they are (almost) wordless comics. You can see previews here.

Seuss used 50 words to write "Green Eggs". Seems positively profligate.

Now I see Runton has written a ‘how to read’ guide. I got an email: "For all you teachers out there, Andy Runton - along with his mother, Patty Runton - have just completed a very thorough and very friendly, 30-page LESSON PLAN to be used in conjunction with teaching the Owly series of graphic novels."

That’s awesome. A short book on how to read short books so easy to read that you don’t even need to be able to read to read them. (This seems to fit in with the ‘how fiction works’ thing, y’see.)

I tried the lesson plan out on Zoë. She looked serious: "This is good because it can help kids learn how to make comics." True. Kids are given an ‘icon dictionary’ to fill in. That is, they are asked to figure out what the basic elements are. Which is a pretty interesting idea. Zoë got into it.

Anyway, the thing Top Shelf has out now that I am most excited about is Hieronymous B. - which would appear to be Owly, written by Kafka. Here’s the preview. (I am compelled to report that you can buy it cheaper through Amazon.) I’ve ordered mine.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

If he must sing, we’ll teach him to him sing like WE want him to

Posted by John Holbo on 03/25/08 at 10:49 AM

Pardon the light blogging. Life is complicated. A little bird sent an email, suggesting I might be interested in ESC: English Studies in Canada Volume 32, Issue 2-3, June/September 2006. So I prove to be. The forum title: “Why do I have to write like that?” Hard to hate on that. I’ll quote the original call for papers by Stephen Slemon:

Literary criticism is a baleful genre, overrun with disinclination and overwhelmed by the dispirited. And what is more, it is institutionally fraudulent. We entice students into our discipline through the lure of pleasurable reading. We then proceed to train them in the manufacture of tortured analytical documents—a perfect example of marketing logic at the level of “bait and switch.” For those of us who are employed in the English Studies industry, this fraudulence comprises a necessary self-deception: our careers depend on our ability to write the kinds of books and articles that we would never willingly read. For those of us who are just entering the profession, however—graduate students especially—a hope prevails for the possibility of real professional change. This panel will examine that hope, preferably in the context of actual global practice in the general field of “academic writing” in English Studies. Can one write differently in “English”? Who has tried to do so, and under what conditions? What is ventured in the attempt to revolutionize critical commentary in the discipline? What is not ventured? Were we to succeed in writing professional documents differently, who might we seek to address as we proceed?

The papers are short. Slemon expresses gratitude that they did not divide, predictably into anti-theory screeds or defenses of being ‘difficult’. (Whew! Makes me glad I’m not in the anti-theory screed business. I hate to be predictable) There are funny bits. “I particularly recall a memorable phrase in circulation at the time and even today: ‘the tyranny of lucidity’.” (That’s from the Murray piece.) From the Cowan piece: “Always a sucker for a good conspiracy theory, I wonder if the culture of academic publishing is so inhospitable to non-academics in order to ensure that only trained, specialized writers contribute to critical literary discourse.” I’m not sure exactly how to characterize the rhetorical mode: epiphenomenal paranoid? Suggesting that something which obviously exists, which doesn’t look like a conspiracy, per se, can only be supposed to exist on the assumption that there’s a conspiracy? ‘Always a sucker for a good conspiracy, I’m going with: sun will rise tomorrow.’ You try it. The Cowan piece vexed me, playing a bit slow, the better to pass off rather straightforward points as smart flourishes. And occasionally rather presuming on my gameness for unargued sideswipes against ‘the tyranny of lucidity’ (call it what you will). I have some moments of serious culture shock, reading English professors describing what they think are appropriate editorial practices for assessing argumentative prose.

Mostly, I agree with what is getting said. I wish everyone was a bit more forceful - clear, if you will - in making points that strike me as, surely, pretty obvious. Especially I wish there were franker acknowledgement of the simple point that the demand for disciplinarity - stylistically - in the absence of a discipline, is recipe for trouble. If everything is cross-disciplinary interventions; if humanists are polypragmatic flaneurs, jaunting about, where’s the sense in posing as more intellectually ‘disciplined’ than, say, popular journalists (to pick an example from one of the papers)? “Such work ... is best described as post-theory rather than anti-theory. It requires greater intellectual depth, not dumbing-down, to try to stand outside the changing pressures of our current moment while fully engaging the new challenges that it sets us” (from the Brydon). But surely this boils down to: be smart; which, as regulative principles go, is neither post-theory nor anti-theory. It isn’t even regulative.

But, again, the forum is called “Why do I have to write like that?” We all sympathize with the little guy with the big eyes in the little red coat, I take it. If you don’t know why my post bears the title it does, better click the link.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Brick Moon

Posted by John Holbo on 03/18/08 at 08:36 AM

Tonight’s selection goes with last night’s. Late 1860’s US SF. Ergo, for fun, another Lulu edition.

"No," said Q. bravely, "at the least it must be very substantial. It must stand fire well, very well. Iron will not answer. It must be brick; we must have a Brick Moon."

Along with The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Three Little Pigs, Edward E. Hale’s "The Brick Moon" (1869) is one of the three great brickpunk classics of world literature.

Sandemanian technopreneurs look to the bold, bricks & mortar future, with a flywheel-launched, satellite-based global positioning system; but learn valuable life lessons instead.

Brick. It’s awesome stuff.

"The Brick Moon" was originally serialized in The Atlantic Monthly. And there is an interesting thematic connection with the Steam Man, above and beyond the nigh simultaneous publication. Apparently the inspiration for the Steam Man was this. "However, by observing carefully the cause of failure, persevering and perfecting the man-form, and by substituting steam in place of the perpetual motion machine, the present success was attained." Words to live by.

As I was saying, in "The Brick Moon", our protagonists are likewise weaned off unreal dreams. "Like all boys, we had tried our hands at perpetual motion. For me, I was sure I could square the circle, if they would give me chalk enough." Then, having put away childish things, they are soon enough hyrodynamically flywheeling tons of bricks into the lower atmosphere.

Here’s a free PDF.

Arguably, this version of the three little pigs is even better.

If you are more old school, here’s Gilgamesh: "Go up on the wall of Uruk and walk around, examine its foundation, inspect its brickwork thoroughly. Is not (even the core of) the brick structure made of kiln-fired brick, and did not the Seven Sages themselves lay out its plans?"

Brick. Awesome.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Huge Hunter or, The Steam Man of the Prairies

Posted by John Holbo on 03/17/08 at 09:45 AM


I’ve been making books. I need your help. (Do you like my cover design?)

Allow me to quote editorial matter from my new edition (which you can download for free in a moment, keep your pants on.)

Edward Sylvester Ellis (1840-1916) was an educator and journalist, best known for his prolific authorship of over a hundred ‘dime novels’, under his own and more than a dozen noms de plume. Ellis’ The Huge Hunter or, The Steam Man of the Prairies (1868) is considered perhaps the first ‘edisonade’ (the term is John Clute’s): tales of young American inventors whose ingenuity gets them into, and out of, adversity. Ellis’ Steam Man was prodigiously knocked-off, first by Harry Enton, author of Frank Reade and His Steam Man of the Plains; which spawned a regular ‘story paper’ series. When Enton gave it up,  Luis Senarens (then aged just 14) took over. The steam man became electric; the youthful protagonist, Frank, acquired an extended family and many new inventions and adventures, populating the weekly Frank Reade Library. Known as ‘the American Jules Verne’, Senarens corresponded with the French Verne, who, inspired by American sources or not, put a ‘steam elephant’ in The Steam House (1880).

This ain’t your grandfather’s steampunk. It’s your great-grandfather’s steampunk. Isn’t that fascinating? Now my trouble starts. First, Senarens, although our focus will be Ellis. A 14-year old Cuban-American wunderkind who, apparently, wrote over 1500 ‘novels’ in his career and was admired by Verne. He’s like a cross between Daisy Ashford and Stephen King, with Latin flair. And what can I learn about him? Damned little. Wikipedia: his dates (1863-1939) and a ‘may not meet the general notability guideline’ note. That’s pitiful. And his stuff is completely unavailable. Oh, you can buy a few old issues of the Frank Reade Library on eBay. Go look. And there’s a bit around the web. But why hasn’t someone made a decent edition of the lot. (Apparently there was one in the recent past. But it’s totally unavailable.) My Frank M. Robinson Science Fiction of the 20th Century, an Illustrated History - nice book: out of print - has a few images, and not a lot of information to go with it.

Continue reading "The Huge Hunter or, The Steam Man of the Prairies"

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art

Posted by John Holbo on 02/20/08 at 09:18 AM

I was looking for something else on the library shelf and suddenly our eyes met, from across an empty aisle. Then I was clutching in my arms the most wonderful book in the world: Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art [amazon]


The text is fascinating. I didn’t know Peake was born to missionary parents in China. Here are recollections of his son, Sebastian Peake:

In the compound there were six grey-stone houses for the staff, all in a line, and in my father’s memory, they looked as though they had been flown over from Croydon. He lived in the fourth, at the tennis-court end, and he ‘loved that great grey house with two verandas, upstairs and down’. The compound where he played was his world, his ‘arena’, ‘a world surrounded by a wall. And on the other side of the wall was China.’ In one corner there was a tree under which he read Treasure Island. It remained his favourite story for the rest of his life. But the world of the compound and the child that in memory he could see ‘leaning over the warm handrail of the high veranda’ was severed from him for ever. It seemed almost not to be a part of him, like ‘some half-forgotten story in a book.’

He was sent to a British Concession grammar school, then home to England. Decades later he produced his wonderful illustrations for Stevenson’s novel - you really owe it to yourself to get your hands on this one [amazon]. Here’s a detail:


Peake plus Treasure Island adds up to one of my favorite books. (I remember, about 15 years ago, Daedalus books had it remaindered for $3 and I bought 15 copies and gradually gave them away to deserving souls.) Except of course my very favorite books are the Gormenghast novels.

In his contribution to the volume, Michael Moorcock makes the China connection. Gormenghast:

This could be the China of Mervyn’s boyhood translated to England. In that China the poor committed suicide on teh surgery steps of doctors unable to cure them, and ancient wealth was displayed against a backdrop of dreadful social suffering. It was a hallucinatory imperial twilight, common to all declining empires, which obscured the hardships of the many from the undemanding eyes of the privileged few - a light Mervyn detected in England, too. He was in many ways a conventional patriot, but he was also amused, frustrated and infuriated by the follies of the English ruling class. His own wartime experience of bureaucratic folly and the ignorant arrogance of leaders, the casual decisions which affected the lives and deaths of thousands, informed the pages of Titus Groan as he wrote it in various barracks, railway stations and transit camps while the army tried to make a gunner of him.

There’s a funny appreciation by John Wood, who applied to be a student at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in 1954, just so he could take drawing with Peake. “It was always a joy to see him enter the life classes, quiet as a ghost, and melt into the background. I don’t think that half the students knew who he really was.” Apparently he looked like just the sort of person who would draw like Mervyn Peake.

But what is best, by far, is the high quality of the art itself. I’ve seen a lot of this before. (Zoë picked up the book, lying on the bed: ‘Hey, this is by the guy who drew Captain Slaughterboard.’ Wise 6-year old. I have grounded her in the essentials.) But I’ve never seen it like this. All those long-familiar Gormenghast illustrations, printed on that crappy paperback paper, they are jumping out at me like new. I don’t think I’ve ever had this experience before of having nothing, for years, but crappy versions of adored art. And now I actually get to see it. It’s even better than I had hoped. And there’s so much I didn’t know about. Landscapes. Portraits, caricatures, caricatures. He even illustrated Blackwood’s “The Wendigo”, only my favorite ghost story of all time. And Dickens. And Jekyll and Hyde. And there are these amazing line drawings he did for a thing I hadn’t heard of: Quest for Sita of Hanuman and the Divine Vultures Jatayus and Sampati. Here is his Sita:


Sorry that you have to make do these crappy web-versions. That’s why you should get the book. A few more under the fold.

Continue reading "Mervyn Peake: The Man and His Art"

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Emulsify Yourself

Posted by John Holbo on 02/19/08 at 10:08 AM

I’m organizing my files - really I’ve got quite a lot of this stuff. I think this one is pretty great (click for larger):


The comma between ‘without’ and ‘energy’ is what makes it work for me.

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