Monthly Archives: August 2008

Remediating Orwell’s Diaries

The Orwell Prize has recently unfurled their project to post George Orwell’s personal diaries online, in blog form, and in real time, seventy years after each entry was originally written.
Why they’ve elected the blog format and the seventy-year anniversary is left unsaid, but they’re questions that I think are not only interesting but important to consider for a project of this kind. There’s little discussion of the motivations behind the project and readers are asked only to “gather [their] own impression[s] of Orwell’s face from reading his most strongly individual piece of writing: his diaries.”
But what happens when (a famous author’s) personal diaries get remediated in blog form?
In the case of Orwell’s diary, it walks and talks like a blog, but it isn’t quite a blog. The site uses a standard template from WordPress, with a double banner– one for the Orwell Prize and the other announcing the site as the “Orwell Diaries” in a sans serif font above an image of a few lines from the diaries. (Speaking of which, I’m curious as to the singularizing of what, in its original form, is plural– will each new diary be presented in a different format or be somehow marked? Or will the blog unify several diaries into one, continuous format?) To the right of the title banners is an image of the author at work at his desk. And running down the far right of the page are links to the about page, archives, categories, and a series of media pieces on the project. The first two posts announce the arrival of the blog, and it is not until the third post that Orwell’s writing begins.
In that post, the diary entry has been transposed almost exactly from Peter Davison’s edition of Orwell’s Complete Works, footnotes included. What’s different is the addition of tags (in this case, “animal” and “snake”) as well as a category (“domestic”), a link to Richard II in Sparknotes, and a place for reader comments. I think, from this and the following few posts currently online, it’s safe to say that the blog format is being used here to replicate the printed book, with a few bonus add-ons.
But because the publishers have decided to release the entries in real-time, I have to think that the intentions for the blog may have been more than just that. By publishing the entries in correlation with the days in which they were written, the blog brings the writer’s thoughts into our time. These aren’t a fossilized and completed set of prestigious memoirs, but rather quotidian reflections just like our own (an impression assisted by the sometimes-banality of Orwell’s entries).
My question is what can be done to enhance the present-ness of Orwell without altering the entries themselves? What font choice would you select? Different fonts to reflect different moods? Would you find a self-reflexive piece of his writing and stick that on the “about” page? What about the banner? Would you include links to the day’s weather forecast in Morocco? What about links to current or contemporary news articles for the more political entries to come? Despite 70 being a nice, round year, I’ve never ceased to be astonished by the prescience of Orwell’s political insights, and how much more relevant this project might be if we brought the author further into our time by associating his personal thoughts with current events–in this case, via links to those events.
Above all, if one is going to remediate Orwell’s work, why not translate it creatively instead of using the web as a book with heightened intelligence?
That said, I think it’s an interesting way to bring Orwell’s diaries to a larger audience, and I’m certainly glad to get a daily fill of his thoughts and observations.

“I heard words and words full of holes.”

I thought that Terry Teachout made an unfortunate omission in his recent column, “Hearing is Believing: The Vanished Glories of Spoken-Word Recordings.” After glimpsing into BBC’s giant vault of sound recordings, Teachout bemoans the inaccessibility of most spoken-word albums:

Why are so many of these priceless documents out of print? Because the market for spoken-word recordings is too small for them to be worth reissuing on CD. So why don’t the BBC, HarperCollins and Sony BMG (which now owns the Columbia Masterworks and RCA catalogs) make their spoken-word archives available for digital downloading via iTunes? Imagine being able to click a few keys on your laptop and listen to, say, Truman Capote reading excerpts from “In Cold Blood” or Montgomery Clift, Julie Harris, Jessica Tandy and David Wayne performing Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie.” Wouldn’t you pay 10 bucks for that privilege? I sure would.

But what about and Penn Sound? Both websites host catalogs of sound clips and boast thousands of mp3s, for free nonetheless. In fact, archived audio exists across the internet, in fabulous–even if sometimes hidden–pockets. Over at Slate, all weekly poems are accompanied by author readings. On Kenneth Goldsmith’s UbuWeb, you can listen to Ezra Pound reading at the Harvard Vocarium, experience Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, and even enjoy a rare 1929 recording of James Joyce.


Earlier in the summer, I raided Penn Sound’s archives for Robert Creeley audio files. I adore Creeley’s readings – ?how he ascended each stanza, how he stumbled through an enjambed line. In his voice, you can hear when his poetry is downright mean, irresistibly tender, and forever hesitant. Having listened repeatedly to Creeley’s “I Know a Man,” I was disappointed in Teachout’s treatment of what author readings tell the audience. Tsk, Teachout writes to all literary critics that picked up that popular “unfortunate habit” of using “voice” when they mean “style.” Teachout’s lead forgets that poetry began as an oral/aural tradition, a tradition which PennSound is looking to revive. Director Al Filreis hopes that the project “has already had an impact on the way poets, critics, teachers, and students talk about the sound of poetry, which is, after all, its most fundamental quality.”
Is there scholarship on how poets read their work? The space between how a reader interprets the text and how an audience hears the words is often vast – ?a canyon of blank page and intentional pauses. Shouldn’t we consider the poet’s performance? When I listen to Creeley read, the way he forfeited line breaks and rushed toward conclusions frequently changes my sense of the poem. On, John Berryman starts The Dream Songs, introducing his Huffy Henry, grumbling and gruff. Berryman takes a sharp breath, and his voice goes staccato, “It was the thought that they thought/they could do it.” Then, there is a pause and he proceeds, “made Henry wicked & away.” In Berryman’s vocal staggering, you can almost hear the departure from when the world was once like a woolen lover…
How can we use our listening experiences with our readings of texts? Or, maybe the more practical question: what should these hybrids look like? In the end, I do agree with Teachout; I want more. After hearing “Dream Songs 1,” I am greedy to hear Berryman tackle “Dream Songs 4.”

twittering from the past

A couple of weeks ago, Sebastian Mary posted about experiments with sending out literature via Twitter. She found herself disappointed that DailyLit was neither “abridging the text savagely for hyper-truncated delivery, or else delivering the unabridged text 140 characters at a time”; instead, texts not built for Twitter were being shoehorned into the Twitter form. Twitter might be the electronic form du jour, but this is a problem as old as electronic writing: the presumption that texts are form-agnostic.
An interesting approach to the problem comes from an unexpected source: the New York Review of Books has begun serializing Félix Fénéon’s Novels in Three Lines via Twitter in Luc Sante’s translation. Fénéon was a fin-de-siècle French writer who’s best known as the art critic who coined the term “pointillism”. (Paul Signac’s portrait of him, Against the Enamel of a Background Rhythmic with Beats and Angles, Tones and Tints, Portrait of Felix Feneon in 1890, is below.) Fénéon was a man of many talents; while publicly known as an anarchist and the first French publisher of James Joyce, he was secretly a master of miniaturized text. His anonymous feuilletonage in Le Matin in 1906 condensed the news of the day to masterpieces of phrasing:

In a café on Rue Fontaine, Vautour, Lenoir, and Atanis exchanged a few bullets regarding their wives, who were not present.

Fénéon’s hypercompression lends itself to Twitter. In a book, these pieces don’t quite have space to breathe; they’re crowded by each other, and it’s more difficult for the reader to savor them individually. As Twitter posts, they’re perfectly self-contained, as they would have been when they appeared as feuilleton.


A quotation from Buckminster Fuller (from Synergetics 529.10) seems apropos for thinking about why Fénéon seems so suited to Twitter:

It is one of the strange facts of experience that when we try to think about the future, our thoughts jump backwards. It may well be that nature has some fundamental metaphysical law by which opening up what we call the future also opens up the past in equal degree.

Emily Dickinson in Sophie

Emily Dickinson’s poems weren’t published during her lifetime- it was only after her death that her sister found Emily’s manuscripts, tucked at the bottom of a trunk, and decided to publish them. In the translation from manuscript to printed page, many aspects of her poems were lost. In editor’s notes, scholars admit to getting snagged on her unusual punctuation, capitalization, and line breaks. The biggest stumbling block comes with Dickinson’s endnotes. For many poems in her manuscripts, Dickinson provided alternate lines. Sometimes only an adjective changed but at other times entire stanzas morphed. In “How the Old Mountains drip with Sunset” (291), Dickinson couldn’t decide upon a single preposition, so there became six ways that one could be in relation to Solitude.

solitude slice.jpg

I’ve been building a Sophie book, which pulls Dickinson’s alternate lines into the body of the poem. I’ve been trying to make the lines no longer seem like potential-yet-never-permanent afterthoughts. When the line is presented within the text of the poem, I find it receives more consideration (if not equal weight, at least more screen time). Plus, in most publications, editors make the decision which lines to incorporate and which ones to discard. With this version, the reader gets pulled into that discussion, closer to Dickinson’s original work. When there is an alternate line, the reader can press on a black button and scroll through Dickinson’s suggested changes:

First Stage.jpg
Second Stage.jpg
Third Stage.jpg
Fourth Stage.jpg

Now, when reading “When we stand on the tops of Things” (242), the reader can see what effect it has when “they bear their dauntless/fearful/tranquil heads.” In the book, the reader begins to encounter questions that surface frequently in literary translation, the question of “what is best in context of the poem.” However, I think that another type of issue is happening here with Dickinson’s work. In “Many a phrase has the English Language” (276), Dickinson waits, tucked in her bedroom in Amherst, for a phrase to arrive with its thundering prospective. The line can read: a) till I grope, and weep; b) till I stir, and weep; or c) till I start, and weep. Each single phrase is fine. But I prefer to think of Emily Dickinson thrashing in her sleigh bed, groping, stirring, and starting all at once. A certain open playfulness becomes built into the framework of the poem once you can let all the possibilities toggle by in one reading experience.
In terms of timing, it pleased me to see Judith Thurman’s recent New Yorker article “Her Own Society.” Thurman describes Dickinson’s dashes as moments in which she “evaded the necessity of putting a period to their mystery—or to her own.” And, earlier this summer, Dan gave me Susan Howe’s “My Emily Dickinson” to read. At one point, Howe argues that Dickinson built a new poetic form grounded in hesitation. I liked that idea of hesitation, circling back and reconsidering what you might say, what you could possibly. For “I prayed at first, a little Girl” (576), Dickinson gives two final stanzas. The two aren’t that unlike. However, looping back, you notice that they accomplish markedly unique things.

Till I could take the Balance
That tips so frequent now,
It takes me all the while to poise —
And then — it does’nt stay —

Till I could catch my Balance
That slips so easy, now,
It takes me all the while to poise —
It isn’t steady tho’.

At this point in the project, I’m afraid I’ve sunken too deep into semi-obsessive adoration to begin to see how this Sophie book could be useful. With this blog post, I’d like to open up the concept for discussion. How do you think a collection like this could be used? Is it ultimately helpful?
Download it here
Right click to download the file. Unzip the file to open the folder. Open “ED Ten” in Sophie Reader.