241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Chris Johansen

What do artists read? The following artists share their favourite books.

Chris Johanson
I don't have a favourite book but I do read.

Annette Messager
The dictionary.

Alexandra Leykauf
This is impossible to answer… but let's say Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth.

Ken Lum

Ken Lum
My favorite book is a children’s book that I actually reread a few years ago when I bought it again to read parts to my youngest niece: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Marcel van Eeden
Gerrit Achterberg, Ode aan Den Haag, De ballade van de gasfitter, Spel van de wilde jacht.

Annette Messager

Marlene Dumas
The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks

Gabriel Lester
Boris Vian, J 'irai cracher sur vos tombes (Ik zal op jullie graf spugen/I Shall Spit on Your Graves).

Chris Ware: Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth

Kimberley Clark
How to Make Love Like a Pornostar by Jenna Jameson.

Alicia Framis
La Dislocation, Benoit Goetz.

Marcel van Eeden

Jamy Shovlinn
Everything from Georges Perec.

Amalia Pica
The Order of Things, Michel Foucault and The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano.

Amalia Pica

Christian Holstad
The telephone book.

David Shrigley
The dictionary, it is the one I keep going back to.

Ryan Gander
The Adventures of the Black Hand Gang by Hans Jurgen Press.

David Shrigley

The following texts result from Nabokov's teachings at universities around the USA:

Select four answers to the question what should a reader be to be a good reader:

  1. The reader should belong to a book club.
  2. The reader should identify himself or herself with the hero or heroine.
  3. The reader should concentrate on the social-economic angle.
  4. The reader should prefer a story with action and dialogue to one with none.
  5. The reader should have seen the book in a movie.
  6. The reader should be a budding author.
  7. The reader should have imagination.
  8. The reader should have memory.
  9. The reader should have a dictionary.
  10. The reader should have some artistic sense.
Scene from Nabokov's Lolita

The students leaned heavily on emotional identification, action, and the social-economic or historical angle. Of course, as you have guessed, the good reader is one who has imagination, memory, a dictionary, and some artistic sense–which sense I propose to develop in myself and in others whenever I have the chance.

Incidentally, I use the word reader very loosely. Curiously enough, one cannot read a book: one can only reread it. A good reader, a major reader, an active and creative reader is a rereader. And I shall tell you why. When we read a book for the first time the very process of laboriously moving our eyes from left to right, line after line, page after page, this complicated physical work upon the book, the very process of learning in terms of space and time what the book is about, this stands between us and artistic appreciation. When we look at a painting we do not have to move our eyes in a special way even if, as in a book, the picture contains elements of depth and development.

Nakobov in 1919

The element of time does not really enter in a first contact with a painting. In reading a book, we must have time to acquaint ourselves with it. We have no physical organ (as we have the eye in regard to a painting) that takes in the whole picture and then can enjoy its details. But at a second, or third, or fourth reading we do, in a sense, behave towards a book as we do towards a painting. However, let us not confuse the physical eye, that monstrous masterpiece of evolution, with the mind, an even more monstrous achievement.

A book, no matter what it is—a work of fiction or a work of science (the boundary line between the two is not as clear as is generally believed)—a book of fiction appeals first of all to the mind. The mind, the brain, the top of the tingling spine, is, or should be, the only instrument used upon a book.

The diacritic, or accent mark, is a symbol added to a letter to indicate that it has a different phonetic value. Our Latin alphabet is a purely phonetic system of writing – unlike, for example, Chinese which is also representational – so these marks are essential in reproducing spoken meaning. Though rare, diacritics do appear in English but mostly in loanwords (‘soufflé’, ‘naïve’, ‘exposé’, for example). Generally though, different letter pronunciations – in particular, vowels – are dictated by their relationship to other letters in a word (like the ‘i’ in ‘like’ and ‘lick’) or by context (as in, ‘to read’ and ‘to have read’).

At school, during Spanish lessons, I would often leave out diacritics through incompetence or laziness. The exception to this was the tilde (~). I applied it diligently as its exclusion would often be a source of amusement to the teacher and anyone else who twigged when años (‘years’) became anos (‘anus’) up on the whiteboard.

There are numerous examples in the Romance Languages of these not-so-romantic faux pas. A small survey of three friends (Italian, French and Spanish) exemplifies the specificity needed when using these small markings but this is perhaps more revealing of them as individuals than the nature of their mother tongues. Giulia offered a couple in Italian: però (‘but’) becomes pero (‘pear tree’) and, of course, papà (‘dad’) is elevated to papa (‘pope’). Justine cheated a little with her French suggestion: traîne (‘dress train’) and traînée (‘trollop/whore’) – this time it is an addition and not an omission that adds vulgarity.

José El Catalan enthusiastically sent thirteen examples in Castilian – but none in Catalan. He’s a man with a certain way with words mixed with an academic nonchalance – his preferred posture of study was in bed, horizontal, cigarette in one hand, papers in the other, an ashtray balanced on his chest – that I am yet to encounter elsewhere. He sent me a couple of inoffensive slip-ups, most were in the following vein: pené (‘I punished’) and pene (‘penis’); cardó (‘to have combed’) and cardo (‘a very ugly person’); moña (colloq. ‘homosexual’) and mona (colloq. ‘drunkard’). However, he ended with a reverse example where an additional ~ proves problematic: cono (‘cone’) becomes coño (‘cunt’). He also included a note: “enséñame el cono” (‘show me your cone’).

The charm associated with the umbrella term Romance Languages, suddenly seems fraught. Maybe we should return to its historical antecedent: Vulgar Latin. This term provides not only a clear past – as these particular languages developed from a colloquial form of Latin – but can also be used here to hint at the favouring of vulgar terms to exemplify linguistic quirks. The word ‘vulgar’, from the Latin vulgus, means ‘populous’ or rather ‘the people’. It was – still is – amongst the people that language can develop successfully and not in any one centralised government.

On occasion, attempts are made to bring language into line. The Portuguese Language Orthographic Agreement is a treaty that was proposed and signed in 1990 with the aim of standardising Portuguese in all countries where it is spoken. It was adopted by Brazil in 2009 and by Portugal a year earlier where it was supposed to be fazed in slowly, but instead has largely been ignored and resisted. Its measures include a standardisation of pronunciation and the removal of silent consonants (acção (‘action’) becomes ação) as well as some diacritics. It can crudely be likened to homogenising British and American English – for example, in English, you could make a case for changing ‘colour’ to ‘color’… Although I suspect such an attempt would be met with as much resistance here as it has been in Portugal.

One of the most infamous examples championed by Portuguese newspaper columnists is that of the humble tortoise. Although incorrect – the Agreement of 1990 would not actually omit the diacritic on this particular word – the example nonetheless stands as a brash shortcut, a vulgar vehicle, for those in opposition to such homogenisation against the wishes of a country’s vulgus. With the loss of its grave accent, the cágado (‘tortoise’) becomes, simply, cagado (‘shitty’).

This article first appeared in Arc 18.

Illustrations by Jonas Berthod

Let me tell you a story about bananas.

I was a staff writer for De Groene Amsterdammer for about five years; I was also editor in chief ad interim for one of those five years. This meant that I chaired the weekly staff meetings, looking for things to fill next week's edition with.

Usually, these meetings were fun. These were truly intelligent, intellectual, experienced journalists. When they mentioned Marx, or Weber, or Pushkin, you could be sure they had actually read Marx, and Weber, and Pushkin. This included the strange guys who did the corrections and the guys who did the tele-marketing, calling people at home to sell subscriptions. Most of these were published authors, philosophy students. De Groene was a bit of a sanctuary, a reservation or, if you like, a zoo.

But a clever zoo.

I remember distinctly a young intern. In his second week, I asked him if he had anything to contribute. Yes, he said, I'd like to write about bananas. De Groene has many faults, but it also has a great tradition of trust. Bananas, I said. Fine. Two pages? 1500 words? By next week? Yes, great, the intern said. It was only after we had jotted down the word 'Bananas, 2 pages' on our list that someone in the group asked 'What's with these bananas, then?'

Out came the story: banana's are a monoculture, every banana is genetically the same as all other bananas in the species, there's a virus raging through banana-plantations and as all bananas are vulnerable in the same way, the traditional chiquita banana (the Cavendish variety) may actually disappear. There are other banana varieties, of course, just as healthy and wholesome and nutritious, but these are usually a bit smaller, and have darker skin, and customers in the western world don't like them much. So: crisis.

A very good story. Got picked up by all sorts of other media - radio, TV. If you don't believe me: VPRO's Labyrinth has the story again, next Sunday. Well done, for an intern.

Susan Sontag

I keep this document. It's sort of a list actually - a list of things that people have said about 'how to write'. In the main what people have said is severed from who they are. Indeed I'm not really sure who said what anymore. I know there is a fair bit from Reader's Digest 'how to be published' columns (always really good advice). A long list from Walter Benjamin, also, which is kind of terrible and kind of brilliant at the same time. What else? A nice set of tips put together by students of W.G. Sebald after he died; lessons from his final classes - again all good stuff, a few scraps from various October school theorists and - I guess - some stuff I made up.

When I'm writing, which is to say struggling, I print out this list and keep it next to me. Upon encountering one or another impasse, I'll often just reach for it, scan it a little. Something of use usually pops up. A rudder then, this list. Something that steadies. I pass it on here. Feel free to add to it. The entries are unnumbered and should not be considered hierarchical. Best thing is to add and delete as required.

Alfred Hitchcock


+ Add loads of details. Do NOT be vague. Add dates, spatial / environmental info, etc.

+ Don't be florid: keep it clear, precise and powerful.

+ Make every word necessary. When we rip away all the passive and wordy phrasing, we get an easier-to-digest sentence

+ This is meant to feel and be hard.

+ The best writing is understated, not full of flourishes and semaphores and tap dancing and vocabulary dumps that get in the way of the story you are telling. Once you accept that, what are you left with? You are left with the story you are telling.

+ The story you are telling is only as good as the information in it: things you elicit, or things you observe, that make a narrative come alive; things that support your point not just through assertion, but through example; quotes that don’t just convey information, but also personality. That’s all reporting.

William Faulkner

+ As the note taking stage nears completion read them carefully then lock them away and don’t look at them again until you have a first draft. This will help you craft an ideal story.

+ All stories are ultimately about the meaning of life, when writing an article persuade yourself of this, understand that it must be about something larger than itself—some universal truth—and begin to search for whatever that is. Sometimes, midway through, you realize it’s not what you thought, it’s something else. But, to quote Roseanne Rosannadanna: “ … It’s always something.

+ Talk about what you have written, by all means, but do not read from it while the work is in progress. Every gratification procured in this way will slacken your tempo. If this regime is followed, the growing desire to communicate will become in the end a motor for completion.

+ In your working conditions avoid everyday mediocrity. Semi-relaxation, to a background of insipid sounds, is degrading. On the other hand, accompaniment by an etude or a cacophony of voices can become as significant for work as the perceptible silence of the night. If the latter sharpens the inner ear, the former acts as a touchstone for a diction ample enough to bury even the most wayward sounds.

Hunter S. Thompson

+ Consider no work perfect over which you have not once sat from evening to broad daylight.

+ Let no thought pass incognito, and keep your notebook as strictly as the authorities keep their register of aliens.

+ The work is the death mask of its conception.

+ Keep sentences short. Might a long sentence be more effective if cut into two? Shorter sentences read quicker. And keep your prose punchy. Re-read your copy to see if words can be omitted.

+ Don't try and be clever and be clear.

+ Writing must come first. Before cycling even. You must be ruthless. The 1.5 - 3 hours that follow a good 8-hour sleep are the most productive time for you. THIS COMES FIRST.

+ Krauss: “the meander” --- you can go anywhere with writing. Be irresponsible.

Francoise Sagan

+ Hal Foster: keep your sources tight. Work from very few; know them well.

+ Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

+ Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.

+ Start as close to the end as possible.

+ Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.

+ Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves.

+ Writing is about discovering things hitherto unseen. Otherwise there’s no point to the process.

Ernest Hemingway

+ By all means be experimental, but let the reader be part of the experiment.

+ It’s hard to write something original about Napoleon, but one of his minor aides is another matter.

+ You need to set things very thoroughly in time and place unless you have good reasons [not to]. Young authors are often too worried about getting things moving on the rails, and not worried enough about what’s on either side of the tracks.

+ A sense of place distinguishes a piece of writing. It may be a distillation of different places. There must be a very good reason for not describing place.

+ Meteorology is not superfluous to the story. Don’t have an aversion to noticing the weather.

+ It’s very difficult, not to say impossible, to get physical movement right when writing. The important thing is that it should work for the reader, even if it is not accurate. You can use ellipsis, abbreviate a sequence of actions; you needn’t laboriously describe each one.

+ ‘Significant detail’ enlivens otherwise mundane situations. You need acute, merciless observation.

+ Oddities are interesting.

+ Characters need details that will anchor themselves in your mind.

+ Get off the main thoroughfares; you’ll see nothing there. Kant’s Critique is a yawn but his incidental writings are fascinating.

+ There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.

Virginia Woolf

+ You must get the servants to work for you. You mustn’t do all the work yourself. That is, you should ask other people for information, and steal ruthlessly from what they provide.

+ I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of titbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.

+ Don’t be afraid to bring in strange, eloquent quotations and graft them into your story. It enriches the prose. Quotations are like yeast or some ingredient one adds.

+ Every sentence taken by itself should mean something.

+ Writing should not create the impression that the writer is trying to be ‘poetic’.

+ It’s easy to write rhythmical prose. It carries you along. After a while it gets tedious.

+ Long sentences prevent you from having continually to name the subject (‘Gertie did this, Gertie felt that’ etc.).

+ Avoid sentences that serve only to set up later sentences.

+ Use the word ‘and’ as little as possible. Try for variety in conjunctions.

+ Lots of things resolve themselves just by being in the drawer a while.

Tennessee Williams