Sunday, November 29, 2015

Alice's 150-Year Anniversary

As those who know when Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was published, it's the 150-year anniversary this year. On Thursday, ABC ran a piece during the exact publication date, including some beautiful pictures from the original edition in longhand. The pictures are beautiful, especially. As the story explains, quoting the British Museum,

"Alice Liddell kept the manuscript until 1928 when she was forced to sell it to pay death duties after the death of her husband," the museum explains, adding that, after the manuscript bounced around a bit,"it was purchased by a wealthy group of benefactors who donated the volume to the British people (and the British Museum) in 1948 in gratitude for their gallantry against Hitler during World War Two."

There was indeed an Alice, who was the protagonist of the book, and so on. Whether you accept Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as a children's book, as a fantasy/adventure book, as a cagily worded treatise on the leading mathematical theories of the day, or as something else entirely, you're almost certainly of the opinion that it is a classic.

Rather than simply re-post the news, which I try to avoid here (even if I have a thing for celebrating the holidays), I'll share two of my things from the book that have influenced my writing. I read it in 2011, so it unfortunately predates Book a Period-of-Time, but this blog is known for throwing literary tidbits at the audience regardless of what else is happening. Here they are, then, in the order they occurred to me:


I love the experimental writing style Carroll uses in the Alice books. As an author myself, and someone fond of innovation in the arts, I appreciated Carroll's willingness to break from literary tradition even as he advocated tradition in math. Carroll's inclusion of long parenthetical passages from the beginning onward is one example. Early passages like "(for, you see, Alice had learnt several things of this sort in her lessons in the school-room, and though this was not a very good opportunity for showing off her knowledge, as there was no one to listen to her, still it was good practice to say it over)" (2-3*) demonstrate a very anti-show, don't tell way of inserting Alice's thoughts into the story, readable silently or aloud. I experiment with storytelling in ways that Carroll directly influenced.

I love the way Carroll presents the decisions Alice is forced to make. Tied to the above passage is the cold, almost inhuman analysis Alice makes in situations that would make anyone else faint. "The Pool of Tears", for example, is basically an entire chapter of this. Alice's body turns into, in her words, "a telescope", (7-8) yet she forgoes the expected terrified screaming for a surprisingly reasoned response: "And she went on planning to herself how she would manage [sending her feet boots for Christmas]. 'They must go by the carrier,' she thought; 'and how funny it'll seem, sending presents to one's own feet! And how odd the directions will look!" The insistence of breaking everything into its component parts has allowed me to think of story in terms of fractious perspectives, or even base an entire novelette on a single decision.

Carroll's legacy cannot be denied, in any genre fantastical, analytical or fun. Celebrate Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, then! I certainly am.

*This may not be the most definitive edition, but it provides what I use here well enough.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Compound Words That Aren't

Compound words are a common feature of the English language. (And German.) There are some words, though, that aren't compound words but could have been if they'd had different etymological roots.

Whereas Christmas means "Christ's mass", and skylight means exactly what you'd think it'd mean, other words only look compound. These aren't words like acorn ("a corn"), which would never be compound because the word "a" is the same as the letter "a", which starts many words.

What if the more believable ones were compound, though? In context, they could make a little more sense. Here are some examples I thought* of:

Managers are man agers. (pic)
Works hop at the workshop. (pic)
Justice is just ice. (pic)

Hopefully you'll be able to think of many more.

Some admittedly make less sense seemingly inherently. For example:

Can one implore imp lore? (pic?)

Only the parents of the imp children who are taught their species' vast collection of myths before bed every night know the answer to that one.

*If anyone else has independently, congrats! You're also entertained by inane wordplay.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Happy Memories List

In the spirit of American Thanksgiving, and associated Panthers blowout victories, it seems like a perfect time to post an idea I had recently. For all the emotions that come up in the books I've discussed here, and for all the ways I've felt throughout the challenges I've endured, I've had barely anything to say about happiness. Seriously - this is what searching "happiness" gets you on this blog. One post, about virtues and sins of all things, which are only conditionally happy based on your experiences.

I hope it isn't too surprising, then, how happy a person I am. I think about happiness a lot, whether about its meaning, its sources, or ways to acquire more. I'm also fond of tracking things. Combining the two gave me this idea:

The Happy Memories List

It's a simple concept that has no doubt been repeated elsewhere. It may also resemble a really lazy diary or journal. It's quick and has a few practical uses, though, so here it is.

Every night, before you go to sleep, write down one happy memory you made that day. Then write down one happy memory you look forward to making the next day.

It combines the cherished nature of memories with the ability to make yourself be excited about something you'll do tomorrow. It's quick too.

I'll be doing it in Excel... I do love Excel.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

November's Book: Eating Animals

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Journalism (2009 - 267 pp.)

Eating Animals is part life story, part investigative piece, part history. Jonathan Safran Foer alternates between his family's story, his experience in the world of farming, an attempt to understand the complex cultural relationships between human and domesticated food animals, and the spectre of factory farming that hangs over the whole thing. Although he has stopped eating meat, he is fine with those who do, and provides numerous examples of small, independent farmers throughout the book. His contrasts between factory farms and more classical farms dominate much of the book.

Foer's argument is compelling because it merges these themes. Juxtaposing the images of a prized Thanksgiving turkey and a beakless bird incapable of standing up or reproducing makes the reader as uncomfortable as Foer wants. His use of statistics to back his claims, such as the hordes of bycatch caught by shrimp trawlers or the average age of slaughtered chickens, makes the issues far more vivid than individual anecdotes would without them. The vast scale of factory farming, and of the environmental damage it and large-scale fishing cause, makes the reader pause at much of the world's culinary engine. The history of factory farming, from its accidental discovery in 1923, through the Chicken of Tomorrow of 1946, through every advance toward the present day, is also an informative read.

Of the book's many personal stories, two jump out at me. They could not be more different. The first is at the beginning of the book, when Foer describes his grandmother's cooking. Her chicken and carrots dish sounds quite good, although it is the end of the first chapter that signals something more ominous than a series of charming family memories. During World War II, Foer's grandmother, who was Jewish, was starving. A Russian farmer offered her pork, which was all he had. She refused on religious grounds. Her justification for not eating pork to save her own life: "If nothing matters, there's nothing to save." (17) This passage underscores how deep-seated the principles are when we discuss food, that a statistical study of agribusiness would not have been enough.

The other is when Foer visits Frank Reese's farm. Reese is introduced through an impassioned letter that explains how he runs his farm and why he would never be a factory farmer. (110-115) I have never encountered anyone so knowledgeable about turkeys or so dedicated to their lives. He openly acknowledges his heritage turkeys' higher price tags, but explains his clientele in terms that demonstrate the connection between rational economic analysis and product differentiation:

Most of the folks who buy my turkeys are not rich by any means; they're struggling on fixed incomes. But they're willing to pay more for the sake of what they believe in. They're willing to pay the real price. (113)

Foer is open about the representation in this debate: "In all of my reading and conversations, though, I've never been able to find a credible defense of it". (263) The only pro-factory farming passage is a two-page letter from a factory farmer, (94-96) which makes some interesting points about the level of demand for meat, rising population levels, and the impossibility of small farms' abilities to meet everyone's needs. He also mentions the inability of factory farmers to communicate about their work given the distortions represented by other groups. (96-97) It would be interesting to see a more large-scale work in favour of factory farming, an Eating Animals of the industry, to have a proper counterpoint to Safran's eloquently presented views.

The book's argumentation has two main weaknesses. One is its Roger and Me-esque claim to complete transparency, as is evident in the chapter "Hiding and Seeking". While shadowing someone feeding factory-farmed animals, Foer notices there are locked doors. This disturbs him greatly, to the point that he says:

Another why: Why would a farmer lock the doors of his turkey farm? ... In the three years I will spend immersed in animal agriculture, nothing will unsettle me more than the locked doors. (86-87)

Why would anyone lock the door of any business, or any building, for that matter? Office buildings often close their doors after a certain hour, often as early as 6PM. Even ones with lobbies containing relatively few items other than a telephone and some furniture often do so. Foer's detailed description of the intricate lighting systems used on factory farms (88-89) suggests that a reason to lock the sheds would be to avoid anyone breaking in and then accidentally disturbing the lighting. This is similar to liquor stores' justified fears of patrons accidentally breaking bottles. There is no proof of any of this; until we have a definitive answer, there is no proof of anything. Of all the accusations Foer and many others make against factory farms, the presence of locked doors on a business's premises seems the least of them. If this is a metaphor for the secrecy of factory farming, it is an ineffective one.

He then goes to vilify the agribusinesses, such as Tyson Foods, for not responding to his letters. (87) Many companies refuse to respond to such benign writers as unsuccessful job applicants. Someone who goes so far as to say "Rationally, factory farming is so obviously wrong, in so many ways" (263), may not precisely portray an agribusiness in the most flattering light. While the reader has no reason to suspect Foer of publishing anything dishonestly, Tyson Foods has no way of knowing someone writing to it, unsolicited and not from an established news network, lacks such intentions.

The other is its intense moral rhetoric against an opponent that should, according to the book's standards, be an easy win. Foer spends pages upon pages of graphic description of factory farming atrocities. This level of description may or may not be necessary. When your opponent is as indefensible as Foer sees his, though, why use seemingly little-related anecdotes, such as the one about Abraham Lincoln, (267) or use fallacious appeals to authority and emotion at various points throughout the book? Foer is a gifted writer who is very good at making factory farming look bad. He can simply write his book, state the evidence, and let then the reader draw the conclusions rather than go on a rant about them.

Minor qualm: I prefer actually being able to see pinpoint citations, whether in footnote or endnote form, than having to simply trust the author whenever I do not feel like digging through the Notes section at the back of the book. This is easily corrected, though.

Ease of Eating Reading: 8
Educational Content: 7

Aside: If it is ever scientifically determined that plants feel pain, is corn and wheat farming suddenly mass murder in conditions even more tightly packed than factory farming? I honestly don't know.

NOTE: How fitting this entry came out today, the same as Taco Bell's new pledge to go cage-free for all its eggs by 2016. Congratulations,* Taco Bell!

*Foer argues "cage-free" may sometimes be a misnomer. We'll have to see what Taco Bell's suppliers do to ensure the cage-free-ness of their eggs before passing judgment.