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palimpsest, fiction, utopia

January 4, 2009 at 6:17 am

colors over each other

I use a thick piece of transparent plastic to align the different color layers as I print them. It’s taped down along one side, so I can print on it, line up the paper underneath it, then fold it back out of the way to print on the paper. If I do everything right, I only have to do this once for each color layer: I mark the table with tape at the corners of the paper, then just line each sheet up to the tape. Usually, I have to do it a couple of times, and adjust the marks somewhat after they are down, to get the color in the right place. The worst case scenario, and what happens for prints with tricky alignment or lots of colors: lining up the paper under the plastic every time. (not as bad as it sounds!)

more color layers

The transparent plastic sheet gets many different layers and colors printed over it, and ends up looking awesome, making me wish I could make a print that would be as good as all the layers randomly laid down over each other. I used to stop using the alignment sheets when they got to a particularly nice state; at some point I got tired of buying new plastic, and I’ve been using the same sheet now for more than a year. Where I want to see through the sheet to check the alignment, I scrub off the old ink, down to the clear plastic; everywhere else I let be. The different layers of ink have different thicknesses and hardnesses, sometimes there’s clear tape on the sheet, protecting some of the colors… This time, as I scrubbed some of the ink off, these remnants of text and image appeared:

palimpsest 1

palimpsest 2

My cousin asked me for fiction reading recommendations. Oh boy! Whenever I am in Philadelphia, I go to the stupendous “Walk A Crooked Mile” bookstore, which is in my parents’ neighborhood (but would be worth a trip even if it weren’t). Here are two super-high recommendations, both from that source:

This christmas-time, I found the book Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, which I had been wanting to read for years and years. I bought it as a present for my brother, then promptly borrowed it and read it. The only thing that’s possible to say about it without creating all kinds of spoilers is that it uses language in a way that no other book I’ve ever read does. The language not only creates the atmosphere and setting, but also disorients and disturbs the reader, shocking them out of their ordinary mind-set and typical approach to reading itself… terrifying and magical. Don’t read anything about it on the internet, just go to the library and get it and read it!

Last christmas-time, I found Antarctica, by Kim Stanley Robinson. I had never read anything by him, but I’d been impressed by an interview I’d come across, so I bought the book for my father, since it seemed like it would line up with his interests in climate change and environmental technology.

In the late fall of this year, I read Robinson’s Red Mars, was totally blown away, and actually went back and read almost all of it over again right after finishing it. (Kevin, I still have it! it will be coming your way shortly…) I was offered the loan of the sequels Green Mars and Blue Mars, but refused, because I had to get work done, and I knew that I would get nothing accomplished if those books were anywhere near my desk. I did find Robinson’s Pacific Edge at a bookstore in Providence, and read that… but! it was short, so it didn’t hold me up too much work-wise, and! then I loaned it immediately to somebody else, so I couldn’t read it again.

Just now, over the christmas holiday, I stole Antarctica from my dad and read it, and while it might not be as finely tuned as Red Mars in its overall sequence and structure, I was thrilled, delighted, and challenged, and would probably have gone back and re-read most of it again if my brother hadn’t stolen it from me in turn.

I feel like my brain is not in the right place right now to describe what is great about these KSR books, but I’m going to try. They bring together a lot of disparate elements: combining landscape writing, science-fiction technology, earth-centric mysticism, anti-capitalist revolution, anarchist ideas about organization and cooperation, the local food movement, humanist theories of architecture, mountain-climbing adventures, actual research and scientific knowledge, very real and sympathetic characters (even the unfriendly ones), and utopian social structures. The theories don’t overwhelm the action, and the narratives subtly but clearly underline the philosophical and political ideas he’s working with. The stories are darn good stories, too, with action, suspense, romance, danger, cliff-hangers, etc, but that would not be enough to make the books excellent…

Ultimately I think what makes Robinson’s writing great for me is that he understands the connection between the personal and the political, the individual and the wider world, the physical body and the philosophical idea — that these things are inevitably intertwined, that they are what we all have to deal with in our lives, and that that is where the greatest adventure lies. He’s smart, he thinks about the world, he gets it, and he writes it in poetic metaphors and incredibly page-turney stories. He isn’t afraid to build utopias — in science fiction, sure, but in a world very close to ours — and to say, straight out to his readers, that yes, this could be real, you could make it real right now, what are you waiting for?

Along related lines, I’m also reading or looking at:

  • Utopia by Sir Thomas More (the original one!)
  • Open Marriage by Nena and George O’Neill (1971, not about sleeping around but about emotional freedom and individual identity: this book is making me think super hard)
  • Posters for the People: Art of the WPA edited/curated by Ennis Carter. (This book just came out, I am very excited to own it!)

… upcoming in the queue (and also from Walk A Crooked Mile) are some books by Martin Buber, which also fall into the utopian category probably…

notes from the internet:

  • Glenn Abanilla, a fellow Providence drawer-of-buildings, keeps this great record of the tools he rescues and repairs!
  • My brother Rich is currently living in Damascus, Syria. His writing about his experiences there, as a tall blond Arabic-speaking north american, provides a different perspective from the suspicious and generalizing attitude that all of the U.S. news media seems to cling to, if you’re interested in what’s happening in that part of the world.
  • My cousin Jonathan rides his bike around a secret city.
  • I’ve been working my way through these essays by Paul Graham; they’re nominally about technology, but are relevant to wider questions of innovation and creativity, and how to work as a creative person.

and yes, I am feeling better! still avoiding coffee and alcohol till everything is totally cleared up… drinking lots of tea, though, staying warm in the snowy cold.


  1. Hei! I read Antarctica too, once long ago, before ever the Mars trilogy came out. I’m not a big KSR fan, because I find it takes forever to read his books. Right now I find myself rereading a lot because there are, I feel, only so many good paperback novels out there and I’ve read at least 70% of them. Today’s is Michael Flynn, “The Wreck of The River of Stars.”

    Tea is good! Drink more tea!

    Thanks for the links to the other blogs.

    Comment by Jonathan — January 5, 2009 @ 2:24 pm
  2. …takes forever to read because… too long? too wordy? too many sentences (about one of every 2.5, by my very informal count) describing the landscape and the geological surroundings?

    recently I’m understanding that the reason I have to read everything twice is because I read way way too fast, the first time around…

    do they just ship pallets full of secondhand paperbacks over to you guys there?

    … I’m gonna assume that included in that 70% is Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed and The Left Hand of Darkness…

    Comment by jean — January 6, 2009 @ 12:03 am
  3. I read Antarctica and UKLG’s Sparrowhawk series and “L Hand of Darkness” around the time your brothers were born, so the exact details of why I got bored with them escape me.

    As for the pallets of books, you are 100% correct. It’s like the David Baldacci and Tess Gerritsen graveyard down here. I wish we could get more of those good old paperbacks from the ’70s, like Robin Cook and James Clavell: I got one such box from a library in California and it made my week.

    Comment by Jonathan — January 6, 2009 @ 6:54 am
  4. … ok, so all I can think about now is a small shack with a metal roof and walls made of paperback books stacked like bricks… with just enough room to sit in, a table for your tea mug and reading lamp, and one window with a good view.

    …along the lines of this chair, which a friend of mine made last year.

    I wonder what the insulation R-value of the books would be, how it would be different with the pages aligned vertically or horizontally, what kind of structure you would need to keep them stable, and what you would have to do about fireproofing… (“architect”)

    Comment by jean — January 6, 2009 @ 1:41 pm
  5. The literary environment here is definitely growing in scale, if not in richness. Since I came to the secret city, they’ve installed new bookshelves in the airport and in the chapel annex and filled them all with paperbacks. Those two initiatives probably account for about 2,000 titles.

    As for the insulation, it would be best to use them on the floor. My lodging, for instance, is elevated above the ground, so I miss out on the insulating features of a nice basement or crawlspace; just having that layer of warm air right underneath would make a big difference. As it is, the heat just drops out right through the floor, making it warm on top of the bed but chilly underneath.

    I like the chair; I should talk to the rebar people and see if I could put one together.

    Comment by Jonathan — January 6, 2009 @ 11:55 pm

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