One of the things I’m very interested in is the work of Edward Tufte. He’s this genius of information design. He’s sold over a million copies, but he self-publishes. He talks about the use of the page, which is not just about putting down words on the page. It’s also about things like small multiples. He’s talking about the rich use of the page and the complexity of information. […] Tufte hired people to work on his books. He hired a producer and designer at the top end of their fields. He’s a very smart guy, but the point is that he did not do this single-handed. He had very gifted people answering to him who made it possible. When I started these conversations with publishers in New York that’s what I was trying to get. I thought if I could talk to editors, if I could talk to agents, if I could show them the kinds of things you could do if you were making use of the page rather than just using words, then people would understand there has to be a way of approaching a book more like a film. With film, yes, you start out with a screenplay, but the director is given resources with which to realize that film. And everybody understands you can’t know from the beginning what that film is going to be in the end. You are not expected to submit an already completed film in order to get funding. But that is the way publishing works. It’s constrained by a specific restricted idea of what text is, which is this: text is word. You hand in your text, and then it’s handed over to the designer, but you have no contact with that person. The white space is theirs, the fonts are theirs; they just do whatever they want, and you have no discussion with them about how the presentation actually relates to what the text is about.
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When I was in high school I was very bored all the time. I was a typical girl. You just did what you had to do to get good grades, then you could go to college and lead a life of the mind. Then it turned out college was the same. Halfway through my sophomore year, I took a leave of absence. I went away, and I was working as a chambermaid in Provincetown. Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is one of the things I bought there. I’d studied French in school, so I thought: I can read Proust. I was able to do this precisely because I was not in college. There was such irony. The only way I could find time to read Proust was while working as a chambermaid. Or Pound. Or Eliot. Pound thought that if there was good poetry in a language, then you should learn enough of that language to read the poetry. Your typical language course is completely misguided. You go through all this stuff about what your hobbies are, and you are not interested in what people are doing, chatting amongst themselves about their jobs, their golf. No! You want to read the great poetry and start there. Pound was single-minded about that. And that was inspiring because surely if you want banality, you don’t have to go looking for it in another language—you have your mother tongue.
I did the entrance exams for Oxford and got in. I left Smith and life was not perfect, but it was better. It was a place language was taken seriously. The thing is that this realization had to come from a book—for me, from Pound. In school, we read books, but nobody ever said: obviously we’re reading this in English, but Greek is one of the great languages. Greek was never mentioned. You had to know for yourself. I mean, who are you going to trust, your twelfth-grade English teacher or Ezra Pound? He was nasty, but he was a genius.
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Literary languages are something different. Natural languages have evolved. They have not normally been engineered for efficiency. They’re crazy in some ways, but they offer these possibilities of engaging with the world. It seems to me a travesty that you spend twelve years in school without one little hour in which someone introduces you to ancient Greek. But it’s a natural consequence of assuming that engaging with a literary text is the reward for a couple of years or so toiling at conversation and basic grammar. This country is so wealthy, in linguistic terms, but only French and Spanish are widely studied in school, with a scattering of others occasionally deemed worthy. Why not offer a taste, early on, of the best of not just of one or two languages, but of a very wide range? By all means offer Spanish, the language of Cervantes and Borges—but the first thing the student should do is read the “Lottery of Babylon,” which is such a wonderful piece. Why would you not start with that? Why wouldn’t you start with something that good in many languages, and then decide which you wanted to pursue? You go to Pittsburgh, and they celebrate diversity by putting Welcome to the neighborhood in different languages on the side of buses. I think we can do better.
I could keep quoting and quoting, but I’ll just send you over there to read the whole thing. DeWitt is so brilliant and has so many great ideas she can’t realize for lack of funding and support; will someone get this woman a MacArthur Fellowship already? (Via wood s lot.)