More Open Source Writing

It’s been just over a year since I reviewed some open source writing apps, so I thought it would be a good time to check back in and see what, if anything, has changed in the interim. It also gives me an excuse to take a break from my own work, and from America’s ongoing national crises.

Last time, I stressed the importance of open source code (and the Linux OS) in terms of autonomy, freedom from commercial exploitation, and privacy. I continue to believe in these criteria. Eric S. Raymond famously wrote about the importance of openness in The Cathedral and the Bazaar, and there’s no doubt that open source software has become enormously influential since then—the Internet runs on it. Yet many people, writers included, remain only vaguely aware of the distinction between open source and commercial software. What’s more, to the extent that they are aware, many people believe commercial software to be superior.

Still the best: Scrivener 3 Windows beta running on Linux via Wine.
Still the best: Scrivener 3 Windows beta running on Linux via Wine.

There’s little doubt that a dedicated commercial team, properly motivated, can accomplish wonders. In this field (writing software), Scrivener is the outstanding example. But as I argued a year ago, I think Scrivener is the exception. Its developers seem to be at least as motivated by the desire to serve writers well as they are by the urge to make money. Quality is the preeminent focus, and it shows. iA Writer is another proprietary program that fits this model; unfortunately, they do not plan to release a Linux version, and the newish Windows version will not run under Wine.

However, commercial imperatives drive some decent software right off the rails. I’m still incensed by the decision Ulysses made to employ a subscription model—there is no justification for it, apart from a naked desire to maximize profits. And I note that sometime over the past year, the mystery-shrouded Write! application has made the same greedy decision. The latter case is especially telling in terms of the vulnerabilities you may encounter with commercial software. Write! has always been coy about who the developers are and where they are located (they are located in Kiev, the Ukraine), and the program requires you to log in in order to use it. You can save your work to their servers, which are also vaguely described. Write! is a potential privacy nightmare, and their decision to start charging a monthly fee after purchase only adds insult to injury.

OK, then. Rant over. Let’s take a look at what’s new with open source writing tools.

First off, there’s a new writing application to report, or rather the revival of a previously languishing application. It’s called UberWriter and it was directly inspired by iA Writer. Its young creator, Wolf Vollprecht, wrote the app for an Ubuntu App Showdown and it was named one of the Top 10 Ubuntu Apps of 2012. Vollprecht charged $5 for it at the time, but then the program was idled for several years (this happens in open source development, especially with young programmers). Now the software is being actively worked on again, with the addition of a second developer, Manuel Genovés, and it’s licensed under the GNU GPL v3.

UberWriter was inspired by iA Writer and has a similar look and feel.
UberWriter was inspired by iA Writer and has a similar look and feel.

UberWriter is written in Python and it’s quite nice—you can definitely see the iA Writer inspiration in its look and feel. Like iA Writer, it has an optional “focus” mode which greys out all but the sentence you’re actively working on. (I hope the developers will also try to implement something like iA Writer’s Syntax Control, where adjectives, nouns, adverbs, verbs, prepositions and/or conjunctions can be highlighted; this is extremely helpful for brief, concentrated writing like poetry.) UberWriter uses Markdown and it can export to .odt and .rtf, along with .pdf and .epub, among other formats. I’m glad the app is back. It seems very promising, and it’s already quite useful for shorter work. The chief downside: it’s only available for Linux.

Here’s what’s up with the other open source writing software reviewed last year. LibreOffice Writer remains a superb (and I believe superior) alternative to Microsoft Word. I’ve noticed that more literary publications are open to accepting .odt files these days, but even for those that continue to insist on .docx or .doc format, Writer’s compatibility with Word is such that this is a non-issue. Writer is very actively developed (as is the entire LibreOffice suite). The Organon plugin for novelists that I mentioned last year has seen no development since then, but it still works fine with the current version of Writer.

Writer is cross-platform (Linux, Mac, Windows), as are all the programs that follow below. I think it’s essential for any writer.

FocusWriter: an exemplary open source program.
FocusWriter: an exemplary open source program.

Graeme Gott’s outstanding FocusWriter is also actively developed, and I still intend to provide a full review of this wonderful application at some point. FocusWriter has multi-document support when you need it, though it’s not really intended for lengthy projects like novels (that’s what the next three programs do). It can be customized to look exactly as you want, and it really shines for short-form work of all types. I think FocusWriter is an exemplary open source program, and it’s well worth adding a tip for the developer when you download it. This “tip jar” approach is far more appropriate for open source projects that offering a handicapped free version and a full paid version, as some apps do.

Bibisco is one of those apps, and I tend to rule it out for its payment model alone. It hasn’t changed much over the past year—there is still no distraction-free mode, for example. And I actually find the program to be quite homely. In addition, I think its character-driven approach is overly rigid.

Plume Creator is still under development, but slowly. Its creator, Cyril Jacquet, states that an entirely new version is underway. The current version (0.67) is available to download from SourceForge for Linux, Mac and Windows. Since the interface hasn’t changed, I’ll refer you to last year’s review for an overview. Plume Creator is helpful and usable now and I look forward to an eventual new release.

Manuskript is probably the best Scrivener-inspired open source program.
Manuskript is probably the best Scrivener-inspired open source program.

Manuskript, my favorite Scrivener-inspired program from last year, has been updated: it’s now at version 0.90 (ever closer to that key 1.0 release). The look and feel of the program are much the same (again, see last year’s review for a more complete description) but the application’s exporting capability has been noticeably improved. It’s now possible to export directly to .docx with fairly decent results. You can also, as before, export to plain text, then use a program like LibreOffice Writer to export to the format of your choice.

Like Plume Creator, Manuskript is very usable now and it’s growing more so. Scrivener remains the preeminent tool for long-form writing, but it’s good to see these open source programs striving to provide some of the same functionality.

Before I sign off, here’s one more news item for your consideration. It involves the longtime Windows writers’ program WriteMonkey, which is not open source. However, there is now a new beta version of WriteMonkey 3 which is available for Linux and Mac, as well as Windows. I downloaded the Linux version and was very pleasantly surprised by how capable the program is. WriteMonkey 3 (WM3) is a complete rewrite of the original Windows program, which has been around since 2006. To quote the WM website description, the app is:

—simple yet poweful,
—plain text only,
—minimal interface,
—distraction-free,
—keyboard friendly (an understatement!) and
—markdown-enabled.

WriteMonkey—not open source, but recommended nonetheless.
WriteMonkey—not open source, but recommended nonetheless.

That list barely scratches the surface. Don’t be fooled by the text-only aspect; this is a very powerful program. It is largely keyboard driven, so there is something of a learning curve. And while it can handle files and directories, I wouldn’t classify WriteMonkey as Scrivener-inspired. Instead, as the Scrivener website itself says,

“WriteMonkey is a free app that presents a stripped down and isolated space for pure writing. Although plain text, it supports Markdown, making it easy to export formatted documents. Its focus is on writing rather than editing, based on the idea of reducing distractions to increase writing quality and speed.”

I would add “enormous flexibility” to that description.

"Monkey wisdom" on the splash screen. There are more than a thousand such quotes.
“Monkey wisdom” on the splash screen. There are more than a thousand such quotes.

Although WriteMonkey is not open source software, it is free. It follows a donation model, much like FocusWriter—the free version is in no way stripped down, as it is with Bibisco. And if you decide to donate you can unlock bonus functionality with various WriteMonkey plugins. This is a fair arrangement, in my estimation, particularly when you consider what the basic program can do.

Unlike the questionable Write! application, WriteMonkey doesn’t hide its source or location: it’s developed by Studio Pomarancha in Ljubljana, Slovenia. If you’re put off by the Balkans origin, you shouldn’t be—WriteMonkey has been around for well over a decade and I’m not aware of any sort of security or privacy issues that have arisen with it. It’s a very capable and polished free program that deserves to be used alongside the open source apps recommended above.

Life Goes On

Sometimes, particularly when it comes to American politics and society, I wonder what the point of these monthly musings of mine actually is. Well, that’s not strictly true—I do know what the point is, and that is to explore and express my own feelings about what’s happening in this country.

Is this any more productive than going to a demonstration, volunteering for a candidate or posting to like-minded friends on Facebook? Perhaps, but only in this regard—writing for this blog forces me to confront my beliefs honestly and express them to the best of my ability in a more considered way than other options permit. Otherwise, no. The blog probably has less practical impact than making a donation would have. I don’t expect to change many minds or have any effect at all on our current dire circumstances.

Still, I feel that “getting it out” rather than suppressing what I feel about the current state of the country is an essentially healthy thing to do. One of the positive things I continue to admire about the United States is the freedom of expression it still largely permits. We haven’t yet reached the point where individuals, or media at large, are censored. One can see that possibility on the horizon, though.

The Mueller Report—an Unfortunate Copout? Photo: Politico.
The Mueller Report—an Unfortunate Copout? Photo: Politico.

Which brings us to the dispiriting Mueller Report. Why spend 22 months on a 300-plus-page report only to stop at a wishy-washy conclusion? Particularly when Trump, the person at the heart of the report, has said and done enough in public view to suggest obstruction charges would be valid? Everything considered, Mueller’s long-awaited report (and its subsequent brisk downplaying by a biased Attorney General) is another indication of the failure of American governance.

Yet life goes on. Other investigations are underway, by entities perhaps less inclined to bow to the current federal power structure. Many, many American citizens (a majority, I believe) are appalled at our situation and want to do something about it. The Democratic Party race for 2020 is on, albeit with far too many candidates announcing far too early.

Trump is a freak of nature and circumstance; he can’t be self-sustaining. The real threat should be viewed as the right-wing Republican Party at large, which is insidiously increasing its hold on power by the day. The focus must be on stopping and reversing this, by targeting voter suppression, gerrymandering and the anti-democratic influence of the Electoral College. And of course, we must also aim to prevent foreign power interference next time around.

The Outline Trilogy

And now for something completely different: the Outline trilogy (or the Faye trilogy, if you prefer) by Rachel Cusk.

Cusk’s novelistic trilogy concluded last year with Kudos and has received tremendous praise on both sides of the Atlantic. It’s generally acknowledged that Cusk has created something genuinely new with these books.

Rachel Cusk’s Outline Trilogy: something genuinely new. Photo: lithub.com.

Many reviewers have described the trilogy novels as belonging to the “autofiction” category popularized by Norway’s Karl Ove Knausgaard. I think that’s wrong—to me, the books come closer to what one might term “negative literature,” in that they strip away many of the traditional lineaments of the novel, such as plot and dialogue.

Yet describing her books as negative literature doesn’t capture Cusk’s achievement, either. It’s not what Cusk leaves out that’s important, but rather the seemingly random conversations and observations she puts in.

I think Cusk has created a new kind of stream-of-consciousness for the age of Trump and Brexit (the latter of which Kudos observes in passing). It’s no one person’s interior thoughts portrayed here, jumbled together throughout the day, but rather an observer’s—Faye’s—registering of others’ diverse thoughts and observations, alongside and largely in place of her own.

The effect is remarkably lifelike, far more so than Knausgaard’s autofiction. (I had some minor difficulty making it through the first book in his series, but found each of Cusk’s books to be brisk, engaging reads.) Outline, Transit and Kudos have collectively been termed cool and cruel books. They are definitely cool; there is a built-in distance in these recorded observations. I’m not sure the books should be termed cruel, though.

What they are is relentlessly honest. If they are cruel, then they are reflecting life itself.

State of the Union

The state of the union is extremely precarious. Regardless of anything our fraudulent president might have to say when the delayed (through his own arrogance and stupidity) State of the Union address eventually takes place, it is beyond dispute that the United States is more polarized today than at any time since the Civil War.

Chanting “White lives matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” several hundred white nationalists and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017. Photo: Washington Post.
Chanting “White lives matter!” “You will not replace us!” and “Jews will not replace us!” several hundred white nationalists and white supremacists marched in Charlottesville, VA in August 2017. Photo: Washington Post.

To say we are “polarized,” though, is an incomplete explanation. Further, it implies a rough equivalency between the two estranged sides. There is no equivalency. On one side there is liberal democracy. On the other, a crude, atavistic nationalism that is being used by the extremely wealthy to further their own interests.

To make matters worse, the same grim scenario is now playing out in Europe. Nationalism is growing so rapidly there that 30 prominent European intellectuals recently issued a call to action to defend democracy. Many of the phrases in their brief document could be applied to the U.S. as well:

“A politics of disdain for intelligence and culture will have triumphed. There will be explosions of xenophobia and antisemitism.”

“We believe it [liberal democracy] remains the one force today virtuous enough to ward off the new signs of totalitarianism that drag in their wake the old miseries of the dark ages.”

“In response to the nationalist and identitarian onslaught, we must rediscover the spirit of activism or accept that resentment and hatred will surround and submerge us.”

Polish nationalists march in November 2017. Photograph: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
Polish nationalists march in November 2017. Photograph: Jaap Arriens/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

There is, though, one important distinction which may yet be America’s salvation. Europe is a collection of nation-states attempting to act within a common framework (the EU). We are a collection of states attempting to act within a national framework.

The importance of our national framework was clearly evident during Trump’s recent, longest-ever government shutdown, when planes couldn’t land at LaGuardia and millions couldn’t get paid or live their normal lives.

Every American citizen depends upon the U.S. government, whether they acknowledge it or not. It is these ligaments, these much-maligned civil servants, that currently hold us together. Trump and the Republicans would retain only enough government power to maintain their place at the top.

We must fight, as Europe must, to keep liberal democracy in place. Without it, we will have no union.

Four of the Year’s Best Books

This post is intended as a brief personal supplement to all of the 2018 “best books” compilations out there—you won’t find many surprises, as the four books below will likely appear on most of those lists. I’ve restricted myself to fiction because it’s my primary interest, and also because I believe it does a better job of capturing the essence of things than non-fiction can.

None of these four titles directly tackles the strange and dangerous time we’re in. But all of them, The Witch Elm possibly excepted, reflect some aspect of our topsy-turvy present. Actually, The Witch Elm does as well, thanks to the hallucinatory aspects of key parts of its story. Tana French’s latest mystery rises to the level of “literary fiction” (as does most of her previous work) and appears on the New York Times 100 Notable Books list.

Here, then, are four very different books from 2018 that will provide you with enjoyable reading and resonate after you’ve finished them.

Gary Shteyngart's Lake Success. Photo: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times.
Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success. Photo: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times.

Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success provides the most direct take on present-day America. The novel, Shteyngart’s fourth, sends his protagonist, Barry Cohen, a rogue hedge-fund manager, on a bus tour of our discombobulated country. There is plenty of sharp social satire, as we’ve come to expect from this writer, particularly aimed at the moneyed class but sparing no one. Barry is a protagonist in the picaresque American road-trip literary tradition but he is also an oblivious, self-centered bungler acting out a privileged midlife crisis. He carries six very expensive wristwatches (Cohen, like his author, is a watch nerd) and a rock of crack cocaine (obtained after chatting with a Baltimore drug dealer) on his journey. I recommend Lake Success for its sharp observations of wide-ranging American inequalities and absurdities.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Photo: Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh. Photo: Alessandra Montalto/The New York Times.

If alienation is your thing, Ottessa Moshfegh is your writer. And who isn’t alienated these days?

Like Lake Success, My Year of Rest and Relaxation is darkly comic. But it is less satiric and more absurdist, and also quite a bit darker.

The unnamed narrator, an unhappy woman in her mid-20s who lives on the Upper East Side, resolves to sleep for a year. She is able to do this because both her parents have died, and the cash from her inheritance enables her to buy her apartment and remain free from work worries, at least for a while. (She has a job in an art gallery but loses it for sleeping in a storage closet during lunchtime.) She is also aided and abetted by a loony therapist (“Dr. Tuttle”) who prescribes staggering quantities of sleep-inducing drugs.

The year is 2000, and our narrator believes that “…when I’d slept enough, I’d be O.K. I’d be renewed, reborn. I would be a whole new person, every one of my cells regenerated enough times that the old cells were just distant, foggy memories.” She proceeds to embark on her year-long sleep, waking each day for 2- or 3-hour periods to eat and/or watch TV before diving back under the covers. She is periodically visited by her quasi-friend Riva, a former roommate from college. Riva is big on self-help books and frequently dispenses advice which the narrator ignores.

Underneath her escape into sleep, the narrator is interested in art (“I wanted to be an artist but I had no talent,” she says). At the end of her long sleep, she finds herself at the Met in September 2001, mesmerized by a painting which she reaches out and touches. 9/11 is just around the corner.

I recommend My Year of Rest and Relaxation for its unique (if disturbing) voice and its strong, solipsistic focus amid the chaotic daily world.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Photo: W. W. Norton & Company.
The Overstory, by Richard Powers. Photo: W. W. Norton & Company.

Richard Powers’s The Overstory presents another unique perspective, this one somewhat more hopeful. Rather than retreating inward, Powers reaches outward to encompass an entire, hiding-in-plain-sight civilization that parallels our own: trees.

As Barbara Kingsolver writes in her Times review of The Overstory, “Trees do most of the things you do, just more slowly. They compete for their livelihoods and take care of their families, sometimes making huge sacrifices for their children. They breathe, eat and have sex. They give gifts, communicate, learn, remember and record the important events of their lives. With relatives and non-kin alike they cooperate, forming neighborhood watch committees—to name one example—with rapid response networks to alert others to a threatening intruder. They manage their resources in bank accounts, using past market trends to predict future needs. They mine and farm the land, and sometimes move their families across great distances for better opportunities. Some of this might take centuries, but for a creature with a life span of hundreds or thousands of years, time must surely have a different feel about it.”

People want to read about people, of course, and Powers accommodates with a wide cast of characters, all of whom have lives that intersect with trees in some way. This sounds formulaic; it’s really not. Nor is it anthropomorphic, as Kingsolver is, deliberately, in the paragraph above—Powers gives trees their due as amazing but horribly abused creatures, but he does so in the service of a compelling human story. In the process, he reveals how closely bound the fates of trees and humans actually are. Given today’s existential threats (climate change, nuclear winter), this could be viewed as an expansion of pessimism—two species in peril rather than one. But I find the implicit threat is offset by the incredible richness, in every sense, that trees convey. I recommend The Overstory as a mind-expanding way to see the wider world anew.

The Witch Elm, by Tana French. Photo: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times.
The Witch Elm, by Tana French. Photo: Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times.

Tana French’s The Witch Elm is nominally a mystery, the first stand-alone novel outside her popular Dublin Murder Squad series. As a mystery, it’s first-rate—some of the story’s surprises will take your breath away. But this book has more than murder on its mind. The Witch Elm is actually a meditation on randomness and personal fate, and I recommend it both as a gripping read and a reminder to feel grateful for each day disaster doesn’t strike.

Time Out

If you’re the sort of person who believes in moral truths such as murder should be punished, disadvantaged people should be offered a hand and lies should be unmasked (and a majority of Americans still hold these beliefs), then you’ve been having a hard time with the news lately. The ongoing dismantling of American values is a hard thing to witness every day. It’s no wonder that people sometimes turn away, seeking whatever relief they can find elsewhere.

Hobbies are one way to take some time out. In my case, quite literally—I’ve developed a new appreciation of the nuances of horology.

Some time back, I was superficially into watches, primarily as a status thing I must admit. Rolex, Omega and Tag Heuer seemed like essential business accessories. Now, I have a renewed appreciation for the art of watchmaking itself and status is no longer a consideration per se. I’m glad to have outgrown my former shallowness.

The Seiko SARB035—incredible value for money.
The Seiko SARB035—incredible value for money. Photo: Pinterest.com.

The person most responsible for my renewed and deepened interest in fine watches is the novelist Gary Shteyngart. His most recent book, Lake Success, features a protagonist (hedge fund manager Barry Cohen) who is a WIS (Watch Idiot Savant). The novel is quite good in its own right, by the way; it’s made the annual New York Times 100 Notable Books list.

Thus inspired, I proceeded to bring myself up to speed on the current state of the watch industry. Here are a few things I learned:

  • Rolex is the only high-end watch most people know. They think it is either the ne plus ultra (not true) or gaudy, overpriced crap (also not true).
  • Since the quartz crisis of the eighties and early nineties, the Swiss watch industry has largely recovered. Most WIS people prefer mechanical movements on aesthetic grounds, though they remain less accurate than quartz.
  • One company—Seiko—makes very high quality watches at every price point, from $100 or so to $50,000-plus (via the Grand Seiko line).

If you’d like to explore for yourself, check out Hodinkee, Worn and Wound and A Blog to Watch (Shteyngart occasionally writes for Hodinkee). You’ll rapidly pick up nuances along with fundamentals: the very wide range of brands, including some small Kickstarter-launched companies; the technical aspects of fine watchmaking; the rich history behind the storied names. There are many, many video reviews out there (check The Urban Gentry channel on YouTube), along with various helpful forums (try Watchuseek).

I wound up (pun intended) refurbishing a couple of vintage Tag Heuers and buying a range of Seikos at various price points. My favorite watch so far is the Seiko SARB035, the cream-dial beauty in the photo above. It, along with its black-dial sibling the SARB033, have recently been discontinued, so their prices have edged past $500 and are still rising. But they could cost two or three times that amount and still represent tremendous value—see the numerous reviews (for example, here and here) comparing them to Rolex or Grand Seiko models to see what I mean.

My SARB035 was purchased to mark a milestone. I’ve owned a Rolex Explorer II in the past, and it is not unreasonable to compare the Seiko to the Rolex, despite the wide divergence in their price points. As for future milestones, I’d like to mark them with a Nomos, probably a Rolex again, and (ultimately) a Grand Seiko model. But that’s off in the future. For now, my little foray into horology has enabled me to temporarily escape the horrors of the news cycle. But only temporarily.

Whatever outside interest you can find to distract yourself, go for it—everyone needs a break now and then. But be sure to come back. You’re going to be needed.

Break It Up

As the midterms approach, some people are expressing hope that things can begin to change. If only the Democrats can take the House, at least there will be some check on Republican power, they say.

I believe this is short-sighted, wishful thinking. The Democrats could take all of Congress, and take back the presidency in 2020, and there would still be some 40% of Americans festering in ignorance and hatred. Despite its name, this country has been only sporadically united, and then only under severe external threat (financial ruin, world war). We have always been divided. I believe it’s time to acknowledge this fundamental truth once and for all.

Blue Red by Ellsworth Kelly, thebroad.org.
Blue Red by Ellsworth Kelly, thebroad.org.

Creating separate blue and red Americas is fraught with danger, of course. Yet the alternative—trying to remain together—is at least as perilous. Hatred and violence are growing by the day, and the current nation’s gun “policies” are insane. Rather than the constant, growing battle for social and cultural supremacy, why not let each side go its own way? Why not appoint ambassadors from each side to negotiate a separation agreement?

Well, one reason is that the more perceptive residents of Red America would quickly recognize they were getting the short end of the stick. The international power and clout of America reside largely in the blue states, as does America’s intellectual and cultural capital. The ordinary red(neck) citizenry might say “good riddance,” but the smarter denizens of Texas and Missouri would soon realize they’d be at a considerable disadvantage as a stand-alone country.

Does the above paragraph reflect my anger and contempt for Trump-supporting America? You’re goddamned right it does—political animus is by no means restricted to the backward-looking heartland.

What, then, is the answer? Should Blue America simply secede? Much as I’d love to live in that new country, the answer is, probably not—secession would almost certainly lead to some sort of new, 21st century civil war, or at the very least to an escalation of the already intolerable level of everyday violence.

We’re at an impasse, folks. What to do with that problematic 40%? The Democratic Party doesn’t seem capable of taking and holding power in this country. And holding power would be necessary, if for no other reason than to reestablish a strong public education system to stamp out the appalling ignorance that underlies our present situation.

With all its inherent difficulties, then, some sort of formal separation seems to be our best bet going forward. But it won’t be easy.

The Incendiaries: a Glowing Debut

R. O. Kwon’s debut novel The Incendiaries had built up considerable anticipation and buzz before its publication on July 31. In part, this was due to superb marketing, on both the publisher’s and the author’s part (Kwon is a whiz at social media and networking). For the most part, though, it was due to the novel itself, which is arrestingly good.

R. O. Kwon's The Incendiaries is a superb debut novel.
R. O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries is a superb debut novel.

I had the considerable good fortune to participate in a fiction workshop led by Reese Kwon earlier this year. Kwon is an engaging instructor, as one would expect. She was also generous enough to share several asides about the 10-year gestation period of her novel, such as the fact that she spent the first two of those years compulsively reworking the opening 20 pages. Kwon is on record as being absorbed by language at the molecular, syllabic level—she is acutely attuned to sound and rhythm, and to how these serve meaning. I suspect her original intention was for nearly every sentence in her novel to stand alone as poetry, and in fact many of these sentences survive in the published version. She is a beautiful writer.

The plot opens with a bang, deliberately so. The rest of the book is then given over to an exploration of the elements and events leading up to the terrorist blast. This in accomplished by interweaving vignettes from the point of view of the three principal characters, always in the same sequence: Will, a student at a leading Hudson Valley college, John Leal, a cult leader with a mysterious past seemingly tied to North Korea, and Phoebe, Will’s sometime girlfriend.

Will’s point-of-view is the dominant one, because he is deliberately trying to achieve a coherent and comprehensive explanation for the events that take place. Will wants meaning. But no such explanation, at least with the comprehension Will desires, can be reached. Its absence does nothing to impede the interest generated by the novel’s characters, though, and indeed the absence of “complete” answers for all complex human affairs seems to be part of the novel’s message. Loss of faith is the major theme here. There can be no all-encompassing answers, ever.

The Incendiaries has one of the finest, most beautifully rendered endings I’ve read in quite some time. I’d quote it for you, or at least a portion of it, but I’d much prefer you read this short novel in its entirety instead. Highly recommended.

Can We Still Think?

Often, an important new book is said to be “thought-provoking.” James Bridle’s New Dark Age aims to be literally thought-provoking—one of the book’s central contentions is that we have entered a new, dimly lit era, engendered by proliferating technology in every walk of life, which has clouded our ability to see and think clearly. Acknowledging this actual state of affairs, Bridle believes, is a necessary first step toward coming to grips with our current reality.

A thought-provoking look at our current predicament. Photo: Amazon.com.
A thought-provoking look at our current predicament. Photo: Amazon.com.

“We know more and more about the world,” Bridle writes, “while being less and less able to do anything about it.” New Dark Age traces this information overload (which produces confusion rather than knowledge) to computers and concomitant technology, and to our faith in and dependence upon technology in general. We have collectively bet that technology was our future, Bridle notes, and have thus effectively foreclosed that future (hence the book’s subtitle). Instead of a technology-driven golden age, we have today’s world of increasing environmental threat (to which server farms contribute significantly, BTW), political dysfunction and communications devolution, including the increasing inability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Trump and Brexit are but symptoms, and everyone is affected to a greater or lesser degree.

To some extent, the author believes, this new darkness can be a positive development, if we will only acknowledge it. We need to understand that we are unable to understand if we are to regain the agency we require to move forward. We need to stop believing in technology without question and start questioning it instead. We need to think about every aspect of what we are doing.

Bridle, who is a visual artist as well as a writer and technologist, provides numerous examples of technology gone wrong, from rogue algorithms that create pornographic cartoons aimed at children on YouTube to growing surveillance here and abroad to the increasing threat of widespread automation.

Facebook is a timely and accessible example. Apart from the role it played in helping to make Trump president (see: Cambridge Analytica), apart from the role it continues to play in fostering turmoil, apart from the self-contained, reinforcing bubbles of “likes” it places its users in, thereby underscoring social and political division, Facebook has an addictive quality for many of its users which may be even more insidious. And, by its very nature, it encourages the superficial while discouraging concentrated thought.

I still have a Facebook account, though I very seldom use it. Yet I have dear friends who practically live on the platform. My interactions with them on Facebook are akin to seeing them a block away in the city, headed in the other direction, and giving them a cursory wave. Facebook is distancing, despite its promise of making it easy to “keep in touch.” I will probably post a link to this review there, although it is essentially pointless, simply a habit because Medium makes it easy to do. Likewise with Twitter. If I take New Dark Age to heart, I’ll need to stop doing that.

(At least Medium attracts people interested in longer reads, though it’s not without its own issues.)

To sum up: if you’re feeling overwhelmed by life in general today, try to make time to read this book and, especially, to think about what you’ve read. It doesn’t provide many answers but it will help you view today’s problems from a different and more conscious perspective, which is certainly a step in the right direction.

An Unhappy Fourth

Two recent opinion pieces in the New York Times sum up the miserable state of the country as another July 4 has come and gone. The first, published on July 3, is headed “America Started Over Once. Can We Do It Again?” It describes the post-Civil War Amendments to the Constitution, with particular emphasis on the 14th Amendment, which includes these lines:

All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Simple, straightforward, but of course still unfulfilled. Yet the promise is there, clearly evident in the words “any person.” Unfortunately, as the Times notes, the promise is receding even further as the Supreme Court continues to tilt right.

Langston Hughes, photographed by Carl Van Vechten. Source: Wikipedia.
Langston Hughes, photographed by Carl Van Vechten. Source: Wikipedia.

The second piece, published by columnist Roger Cohen today, is headed “America Never Was, Yet Will Be.” The line is from the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again,” and it too deals with a promise that remains unfulfilled. A deep, magnificent promise that was once resonantly symbolized by our Statue of Liberty. A promise still alive for many around the world, even in our current dark times, even if it can never be realized under Trump’s appalling administration.

In his poem, Hughes addresses America’s downtrodden, still plentiful today. Such people are the spiritual ancestors (I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart) of many of Trump’s current supporters, and those supporters remain fooled, too distracted by “fake news” to see the truth and act accordingly.

Here is “Let America Be America Again” in its entirety:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © 1994 the Estate of Langston Hughes. The poem’s full text was taken from Poets.org.