Sunday, June 27, 2010

Wise Counsel

"In swallowing a portion of the morsel that is cooking in the sun I consume a fragment of the coming storm . . . "

"What coming storm?" cried Hope.

"There is always a coming storm." said Len.

--Wilson Harris

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


This is your Kindle.

This is your Kindle on the ipad.

A recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education prominently featured "A Special Forum on E-Readers," in which seven academics held forth on e-readers and the future of reading. Some of the responses might well cause you to wonder about the present state of reading.

In "Loving the Idea of E-Books (But Not the Kindle)," NYU doctoral candidate Alice E. Marwick offers a list of things you can't do with the device, including "mark important passages with Post-it flags. Highlight articles. Write notes on articles. Cut and paste text into other documents."

Ms. Marwick, meet Dr. Kathleen Fitzpatrick, associate professor of English and Media Studies at Pomona College, whose contribution is titled "The iPad: A Great Digital Reading Device." While outlining the joy of iPad, Dr. Fitzpatrick notes in passing that "The Kindle app . . . allows bookmarking and highlighting as well as text annotations, but it doesn't permit copying and pasting at all." Now, one reason the Kindle app allows these features on the iPad is that the Kindle itself allows them. While it would indeed be pointless to stick a post-it on the Kindle, and the technology certainly doesn't prevent one from making that pointless gesture, what Ms. Marwick wanted to do was simply to highlight text, which you have always been able to do on the Kindle, and which can now be done even more quickly and easily on the iPad's Kindle app. Similarly, it has always been possible to annotate text on the Kindle. Indeed, this was one of the several advances over the then-existing e-book technology that caused me to be an early adopter. Here again, annotating is considerably easier and smoother on the iPad Kindle app than on the Kindle itself, but it has always been possible.

For that matter, if the contributors to the Chronicle's forum had simply moseyed on over to the Kindle support page they would have found easy-to-follow instructions on how to do each of these supposedly undoable things.

Evidently Fordham professor Leonard Cassuto hasn't paid a visit to the instruction manual either. In his response, "An E-Reader Will Be in My Future -- Eventually," he complains: "I need to be able to write in the books I read, and if I own the book--whether in the form of pulped trees or as a collection of magnetized zeros and ones--I want to be able to take notes in it." He goes on to remark that "the latest version of the Kindle does allow the reader to annotate the text," but then asks: "Is it yet possible to annotate a copyrighted e-book . . . Perhaps the most interesting aspect of that question is how hard I had to look for an answer . . . The answer I, eventually discovered, is still no."

Hmmmm . . . . let's see here. I turn in my Kindle to my copy of the very much copyrighted recent publication of Ralph Ellison's unfinished, massive second novel. Yep, just as I remembered, there are my copious annotations still intact where I left them, along with my many highlighted passages.

Indeed, despite what these special forum end users seem to think, I have just copied several clippings from the novel into a text file along with my annotations so that I can paste them into a conference paper one day.

Another issue is raised by Mark Sample, a George Mason Assistant Professor in the department of English, one that won't be answered on the Kindle's FAQs page, but one whose answer should have been readily apparent given any reflection at all. Sample concedes that the iPad and the Kindle "are marvels of engineering and commerce." The problem, according to this self-acknowledged gadget lover, is that "e-books are simply not interesting ." That should strike you as rather like hearing someone say "recorded music is simply not interesting." Sample argues that the e-books we might read on an iPad "are much less experimental than any paper-and-glue book." He chooses an odd example to make the point, Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves, which I read in paper-and-glue format when it first appeared. According to Sample,
"it'd be impossible on any kind of e-book reader." There is nothing in the text of House of Leaves, though, that wouldn't be easily reproduced in e-book format.

Guess he hasn't noticed that David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, replete with its infinite footnotes, has been available on Kindle all this time and is quite readable. It is true, as Sample says, that most novelists are writing books that don't experiment with form, and it has always been true. Sample might have a somewhat different view if he spent some time hanging out among the e-poetics crew who have been busily experimenting with form in electronic formats long enough now that there are several academic books dedicated to their results. In truth, House of Leaves is not impossible to present on an e-reader; it's just that nobody has made the commercial decision to make it available in that format yet.

As so often proves to be the case, the answers to these readers' problems are found with a bit more reading.

There are still things you can't do with a Kindle or an iPad, or even the Kindle on the iPad, and what's truly frustrating is that the obstacles are not in the technology, but in the commerce. More about that in a future posting.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Teshome Gabriel and Peter Brunette

Yesterday's afternoon email brought the sad news that my dear friend Teshome Gabriel had died. When I went to the web to find more information, I learned that another friend, Peter Brunette, had also died.

I first came to know of Teshome Gabriel when I answered the phone in my San Jose State office one day more than two decades ago. Teshome introduced himself, and told me that he had just finished reading my first critical book, Reading Race. I had never before gotten a phone call from a reader, and I have never gotten such a phone call again. I was particularly impressed that a film scholar had chosen to read a book about racial discourse in American poetry. Teshome had immediately seen the relevance of what I was doing to his own continuing work in cinema. As we spoke that day, I learned that he knew people I had met in my days at Howard University, including Mbaye Cham and Haile Gerima.

In my usual way, I followed that conversation with a trip to the library, where I found the essay Teshome had contributed to a collection Mbaye had edited. Then I got busy on line and tracked down a copy of Teshome's own important volume Third Cinema in the Third World: The Aesthetic of Liberation. Still, even after reading his path-breaking work, I had no idea that Teshome would soon become such a part of my life.

It started at the end of that phone call. I was later to learn just how generous Teshome Gabriel was to students and colleagues alike. That day, he told me that he was part of a group starting a new journal, Emegences, and asked if I might be willing to contribute an essay. Thus appeared the first of my published works on C.L.R. James, and I was proud of the company I found myself in when I saw the hard copy of that first issue of the journal.

A few years later I had moved to Los Angeles, and got a chance to meet Gabriel in person. He quickly became a family friend as well as a colleague. I treasure memories of meeting him for dinner in Westwood, or in one of his favorite Ethiopian restaurants on Fairfax. At one point I had the good fortune to receive a year-long research fellowship at UCLA's Center for African American Studies. Teshome served as my official "mentor" that year, and I spent many afternoons talking over my research with him. That year, and later when I was teaching briefly at UCLA courtesy of the department of English, I knew I could always drop by Teshome's favorite table at Luvalle Commons and talk things over as his students, friends, and people from Ethiopia who had never met him but had been sent his way would stream by.

In later years, Teshome Gabriel co-edited such vital works as Otherness and Media: The Ethnography of the Imagined and the Imaged and Questioning African Cinema: Conversations with Filmmakers. I have missed Teshome, his wife and family since moving to Penn State, and had hoped to see him in Westwood again soon. The last time I saw him he was, characteristically, sitting on a wall on campus sharing his time and insights with students and friends, and even a stray passerby like me.

Contemporaries of Teshome's, such as Haile Gerima, led a revolution in film. Teshome undertook the hard task of making a revolution in the way we think about film.


I didn't know Peter Brunette nearly as well as I knew Teshome, but I'd known him longer. Back when I had just graduated and was an adjunct at Howard, Peter and I met on a panel held on the campus of George Washington University and broadcast on C-Span. (I got many more letters and phone calls in the wake of that broadcast than I have ever gotten in response to my writings.) The panel was on the subject of Student Activism: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Peter and I looked to be the voice of yesterday, having been at the scene of the 60s. In fact, as I explained to the audience, I had been one of the many people driven from that very room by a massive launch of CS gas in the course of antiwar demonstrations during the Viet Nam conflict.

It turned out that Peter and I had both been drafted for the panel by the same young woman, a family friend in his case who also happened to work in an office with someone I knew back in the day. Peter and I enjoyed the experience of that panel, and again I made a point of looking up his work.

As I continued to do over the years . . . I would once in a while run into Peter at a conference, but I knew him primarily through his work. Of real use to me was a book he co-authored with David Wills on Derrida and film theory. Peter also published on such figures as Rossellini, Truffaut, Antonioni, even Wong Kar-wai. But my favorite memory will always be a talk Peter once gave at a conference, a talk on Fatty Arbuckle: "The Ontology of Fat."

Saturday, June 05, 2010

ALA 2010 - San Francisco

The HEATSTRINGS Blog has been on a bit of a hiatus of late, due to family emergencies, but now we're back with a folio of photos from this year's conference of the American Literature Association in San Francisco.

One highpoint this year was the presentation of the Stephen Henderson Award to poet C.S.Giscombe by the African American Literature and Culture Society.

If you click on the title of this blog entry, you will be taken to a recording of the event. Following the introductions, Giscombe offers some reflections on his relationship to Henderson and then reads briefly from his own work.

My own paper came on the first day of the conference, on a panel dedicated to exploring the current state of criticism of African American poetry and poetics. My fellow panelists were Meta Jones and Keith Leonard, and we were ably chaired by Billy Joe Harris.

The following day I stepped in to chair a panel organized by John Whalen-Bridge that featured novelists Charles Johnson and Maxine Hong Kingston offering thoughts on Buddhism and their writing.

Another key moment was the session on Gertrude Stein featuring poets Juliana Spahr and Joan Retallack along with Marjorie Perloff. It was just after that panel closed that I received Charles Bernstein's email with the news that Leslie Scalapino had died the previous day. That news spread quietly through the conference and left all of us deeply saddened, though many of us shared memories of our time with Leslie and our deep appreciation for her works.

Next year's conference will be in Boston. For information on the African American Literature and Culture Society, follow this link to their web site. Also keep an eye on the ALA's web site for the call for papers for next year.