Letters to the Living Dead

The eponymous hero of Saul Bellow’s Herzog spends his days writing letters. Moses Herzog1 is writing to “everyone under the sun…to the newspapers, to people in public life, to friends and relatives and at last to the dead, his own obscure dead, and finally the famous dead.”2 Later, he pauses during one his letters:

He realized he was writing to the dead. To bring the shades of great philosophers up to date. But then why shouldn’t he write to the dead? He lived with them as much as with the living—perhaps more; and besides, his letters to the living were increasingly mental, and anyway, to the Unconscious, what was death? (p. 198-199)

I’ve for a long while debated writing a blog. Until now, I’ve followed Herzog’s approach, at least in spirit. There are friends whose inboxes are flooded with random missives with my thoughts. And my own (private) journals might be considered letters to the living dead—living because the ideas are still alive. This allusion to Bellow is a touch disingenuous (not to mention macabre), because I have a less historical outlook than Herzog, and so I’m resisting the temptation to, say, name the blog “Letters to the Living Dead”. But I wanted to begin on this note, to set the tone for what I want to write about.

I want to write about ideas. Ideas matter fundamentally. A passage in another Bellow novel, Humboldt’s Gift, shows the difference between the essential curiosity of the intellectual and the parochial, narrow interests of the scholar or the academic:

Now then, could he say anything serious to me? But could I tell him what was on my mind? Could I say that that morning I had been reading Hegel’s Phenomenology, the pages on freedom and death? Could I say that I had been thinking about the history of human consciousness with special emphasis on the question of boredom? Could I say that for years now I had been preoccupied with this theme and that I had discussed it with the late poet Von Humboldt Fleisher? Never. Even with astrophysicists, with professors of economics or paleontology, it was impossible to discuss such things.3

Again, there’s a more historical and philosophical flavor to Bellow’s character’s interests than I have—my readings have more been in the synchronic study of sciences (mathematics, linguistics, economics) and the timeless world of fiction—but this captures the imperative I feel to ask the important questions.

And so: I have finally succumbed and started a blog. Mostly, I think, this will help spare the inboxes of the poor friends to whom I direct those random missives. (I joke to these friends, who seem to be doing things less amenable to procrastination than a Ph.D. program, that correspondence with me is a form of asymmetrical warfare. It gets particularly bad when I start long emails and then decide I can’t do without footnotes; I end up sending my poor friends pdf attachments with dozens of footnotes.4 One such friend suggests that I adopt a variation of the Andrew Sullivan subscription model for blogs: my friends pay me monthly for not having the obligation to respond to these emails.) More seriously, I have for a long while in my free time been working on various writing projects. Few if any of these have seen the light of day—and most of them won’t any time soon. But it seems time to start putting at least some of these into a more public sphere.

That I’ve kept most of my writing projects private hints at a very real problem, a problem that’s very germane to the medium of the blog. There’s a big difference between jotting things down in (digital) notebooks and publishing something sufficiently polished for the world to see. Both acts are tremendously important. It’s crucial, I think, to engage in such private notebooking and journaling; I’ve grown a tremendous amount intellectually from this process. And it would be dangerous to do so in a public realm: the self-censoring would discourage the intellectual honesty necessary for my own thoughts, and the time and energy it would take to write such entries with sufficient care would engulf my life. And yet: if one has thoughts, ideas, one wants to share them.5 This is certainly true for the larger of the aforementioned writing projects, which will require significant amounts of time to finish. And so, as an interim measure, perhaps I can share some of these ideas here.

The challenge, then, will be to seek a balance: how to write a blog, something I must craft carefully enough to be willing to show the world, without letting it take too much time, without letting it distract from my other projects? I’ll have to content myself with giving this caveat here (even though I don’t know whether I’ll follow it): these are not necessarily polished, not necessarily crafted, these are essays in the etymological sense.6 We’ll see how that goes. (After all, I’m the type of person who insists on writing a long preamble to a blog.)

What will I write about? I expect to write about ideas, broadly conceived. Of course, this means that I can write about anything I want. We’ll see what exactly this means. I suspect the topics will include literature, economics, education, journalism, law, linguistics,7 technology, science, and math, among other areas.8 I should note, though, three topics that I don’t expect to dwell on:

  1. Although I’m in graduate school in math, this certainly isn’t primarily a “math blog”. It’s not completely orthogonal (to use a math word, sorry) to pure math, because I do expect to write from time to time about things pertaining to math (just as I might write about things related to theoretical linguistics, which I used to study), but I expect to do so in a way that’s accessible (I hope) to the general reader. Indeed, I believe rather strongly that we need more poets to study math, and more mathematicians to study poetry, and likewise for everyone and everything in between. (I particularly think that we need bankers to study literature, and we need humanists, journalists and politicians to study economics. And everyone should learn more probability.)
  2. This isn’t a twitter, a livejournal, a xanga, or anything of the sort (does xanga even exist anymore?): this isn’t a personal blog about my life. Things may come up from time to time—and certainly, as I explore the form of the essay, I’m not going to deprive myself all the tools of the authorial voice of personal experience—but that’s not what this is about. The personal is personal; I’m not the type to share this over the internet.
  3. I probably won’t be going into politics very much. For those who know me, perhaps this is not surprising. I might address the “political” in certain narrower issues, and there might the stray elliptic comment—see, e.g., above on poets and bankers—but I’m not going to open that can of worms.

Although I expect to write a good deal about non-literary topics—indeed, I hope most of the blog can appeal to those without any literary interests—because much of my focus is literary, I want to make two points about how I will write about literature.

First, I should note that I’m somewhat reluctant to criticize the living. There’ve been discussions recently about the importance of negative criticism. I think this is tremendously important. I certainly love reading a good polemical review—by people like William Deresiewicz, Anthony Lane, or Paul Berman. And I’m rather ambivalent about much of contemporary fiction (although I should make clear that I’ve only read a very thin sliver of it, and hope to be proved wrong), so I want someone to attack the sacred cows. But it probably won’t be me. Thus, for example, I’ll say that I recently read Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn and was blown away by how beautiful this was and urge everyone to read it, but I probably won’t name the various highly hyped books of literary fiction in the past few years that I’ve been nonplussed by. (For movies and other massive commercial things where it’s not a solitary author on the line, I’ll be more open. Thus, in addition to saying that Incendies9 and Moonrise Kingdom are two of the best movies I’ve seen, I have no compunction saying that the primary redeeming merit of Les Mis was my entertainment in reading the scathing reviews.) I just want to say this, for the sake of intellectual honesty. (Also: I reserve the right to change this; perhaps I will change this, develop a critic’s pen.)

Second, I want to acknowledge the uncomfortable state of reading criticism about things one hasn’t read. I studiously avoid reading any reviews of a book before I read it (ditto for plays and movies); I even avoid reading back covers. (Of course reviews play an important role in the informational problem of determining whether to read a book, see a movie, etc. Luckily, at least when it comes from books, there’s a large enough supply of highly lauded books to last a lifetime, and one can generally get a sense of reviews by osmosis without learning any spoilers.) And so, because it’s one of my pet peeves, I’ll try to be careful about revealing any spoilers.

Design, Layout, Etc.

I’ve used the Ari theme, hosted using WordPress.10 I hope this formats well on all of your devices. I’m rather old school—my phone is dumb, I don’t have an ipad, all I use is firefox on a mac, and besides I use technology (RSS) that Google has deemed unimportant—so I can’t check that everything looks lovely on newer devices. But I think this theme is supposed to be appropriately adaptive. If you’re on a narrower screen, the third column appears below the main text. I’ve put what I hope is the crucial information on the first, left column, but you can scroll down for that third column. (The width of the text is slightly too narrow for my taste, but then there’s research that suggests that narrow columns are actually easier to read. If you make the browser a bit narrower, when the third column disappears the main column becomes in fact slightly wider, which you might like.) I half do and half don’t want to spend the time to make the typefaces, etc., match my aesthetic sensibilities, but at some point I probably will.11 For now, my apologies for the garish bar next to extended quotations, the mismatch between serifed and sans-serifed fonts, etc. If anything is hard to read, do let me know.12

Frequency, Content, Etc.

We’ll see. It’ll have to be a level that will be manageable. It’s possible at times that it will be sparse. See here for some options for subscribing. If I find links to interesting articles, etc., I imagine I’ll do them in one batch of a bunch of links, rather than cluttering up an RSS feed with too many small entries.

Feedback and Comments

I’m generally quite skeptical of online commenting. (Indeed, I’m on the record13 for this stance.14) But I would very much love feedback; please do write to me with comments, by email.15 Only with your permission, I might post them.

Also, if you see a typo, other egregious infelicity of writing, broken link, etc., please let me know so I can fix it. Otherwise, I will be overly paranoid in proofreading, and this will take up too much of my time.

Amazon Links

Since I’ll be providing lots of links to books anyways, I’ve decided to use Amazon.com‘s affiliates program. If you click on one of the links to Amazon from my blog and buy that item within 24 hours, I get a small percentage. This helps pay for the cost of hosting the site, so please do this! In fact, I believe the way it works is that if you buy anything through Amazon through this link, then I will get a commission on. Yes, yes, I support local independent bookstores (hooray for the newly opening Literati Bookstore here in Ann Arbor, filling a void left by the departure of Shaman Drum). So you should too. But I also order plenty of things from Amazon, as I imagine do you, so why not make some money.

Privacy

I want to respect, to the extent possible, privacy on the web, while also acknowledging friends and others who’ve given me ideas. I’ll err on the side of disguising the identity of any friends I refer to, and won’t link to friends’ pseudonymous or semi-pseudonymous/hidden-by-obfuscation blogs (which I very much enjoy!), but if I’m referring to you or your blog and you want more public credit, please let me know and I will de-anonymize you. Obviously, I’m comfortable posting these thoughts online under my name, so I’m happy to be cited and linked to, but I hope I can do so in a way that keeps my personal life private.

N.B.: Apologies for the length of this. I’m of course the type of person who likes to do this, cover all the contingencies; in my very straightforward calculus classes, somehow my syllabi are twice as long as those of other instructors. Maybe I should follow Bellow’s Herzog in writing only to the dead; they have all the time in the world for qualifications and caveats.


  1. I read in James Atlas’s biography that Bellow had forgotten that this was the name of an obscure character in Ulysses. (“—Circumcised? says Joe./—Ay, says I. A bit off the top.” [12.17 in the Gabler edition]) Somehow this great phrase barely turns up in google searches. I suggest we commence using this phrase. The phrase of Joyce’s that I most want to bring into public use, though, is the word “peloothered” for drunk, from Joyce’s Dubliners.

    —Yes, yes, said Mr Kernan, trying to remember. I remember now there was a policeman. Decent young fellow, he seemed. How did it happen at all?
    —It happened that you were peloothered, Tom, said Mr Cunningham gravely.
    (Dubliners, p. 125 in the Oxford World Classics edition).

    As I seem to be on a tangent about good euphemisms, may I heartily recommend the essay “I am Michiko Kakutani,” citing which I hope won’t put me in Ms. Kakutani’s bad book if I ever achieve literary success. 

  2. p. 3 in my Penguin classics Edition. (I hate how some reviews don’t give page numbers for quotes. Perhaps someday Google Books will make that unnecessary, but for now it’s awfully useful. I will always do so.) 
  3. p. 69 in my Viking edition, 1975. 
  4. There will be footnotes here, too. I hope these aren’t too ungainly. WordPress doesn’t give amazing solutions for footnotes. Part of me is attracted to the Tufte-style marginal notes that Grantland uses, but I didn’t find an easy way to do these in wordpress (let me know if you know how), and I’m not sure how well they’d work in an RSS reader, which is how I at least enjoy reading blogs, not to mention the various mobile-sized screens people use nowadays. Part of me just wants to post my nicely typeset pdf files. (Update: I’ve switched to using Markdown, which is a much better solution for inputting footnotes. Unfortunately, this doesn’t allow the footnote to appear in the alt text anymore, as did my previous solution, nor can I put the brackets around the footnote number.) 
  5. One of my favorite quotes comes from Luc Sante’s review of Sontag’s diaries:

    You might say there are two kinds of writers: those who keep a journal in the hope that its contents might someday be published, and those who do not keep a journal for fear that its contents might someday be published.

    I have a friend who makes sure each time he flies that he has all his external hard drives with him, so that if the plane goes down they go with him. I, by contrast, make a point of noting to my friends (and now, I suppose, the internet) my multiply redundant backup systems. 

  6. This contrasts with the actual genre of the essay, a genre I very much admire which in its best incarnations is certainly very carefully crafted. I do have several ideas that I hope to turn into such real essays; perhaps I will experiment with those here. 
  7. Although I should note that, despite having studied theoretical linguistics (and having done scintillating research which can be pithily if disingenuously summarized as confirming that the word “that” means nothing), and despite caring a tremendous amount about writing and language, I’m rarely interested in pop linguistics discussions of quirks of language, etymologies, concatenations of the word Buffalo that can be parsed as a sentence, etc. (These are the sorts of things one might find on a blog like Language Log.) It’s interesting how both linguistics and mathematics (the academic disciplines I know best) have these amateur “puzzle” branches. In math, too, I find puzzles (and their cousins, board games) rather uninteresting. I think it’s important that it be said that the true beauty of the fields isn’t in these sorts of puzzles. 
  8. One particular idea I’ve had is to offer expositions of certain incredibly beautiful, under-appreciated ideas: price discrimination in economics, machine learning in computer science (and why it works reasonably well on Amazon but is laughably bad on, say, ok cupid), conversational implicature in linguistics, Benford’s law in statistics, various ideas from probability, the relationship between ontogeny and phylogeny in biology (and in literature/ideas), and so on. 
  9. An interesting case where I found the film much better than the play. 
  10. Update: This has changed, I’m now (May 2013) using a new theme, which I think looks a lot better. 
  11. Well, to be precise, I very much do want this to happen, but I very much don’t want to spend the time to do so, and for now the former impulse is winning. 
  12. I hope, in particular, that the footnotes aren’t too hard to read. 
  13. In an article from when I was public editor of the Stanford Daily, whose site has inexplicably lost its archives from when I was in college, so I can’t link to the original article. 
  14. I’ve always thought that online comments would be a great opportunity to try out micropayments. (I’ve noticed that the new New Republic is partially following this idea, in limiting comments to subscribers.) Also, I should note that my public editor article linked above did miss an important legal subtlety: actually, it’s probably in a newspaper’s legal interest to avoid any moderating, which is a failing on the part of the law.) 
  15. I might experiment with having a comments form at the bottom of entries, just for feedback, or I might just have a link to email me. 

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