Florey’s Script & Scribble: on the death of cursive

My current contribution to NPR’s Books We Like is devoted to Kitty Burns Florey’s Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting:

At five, teary-eyed, I announced to my mother that I never wanted to grow up, because adults’ handwriting was ugly. When she asked what I meant, I pointed to her signature — a towering and illegible series of loops that barely fit in the space allotted — on a check she’d just made out. I couldn’t even read cursive then, much less write it, but I was a bit of a hall monitor as a young child, and her penmanship didn’t even seem to be the same species of writing as the flowing, even curves that covered the chalkboards in the second and third grade classrooms.

Nowadays kids are lucky if they learn to write as legibly as their parents did. As Kitty Burns Florey observes in Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, in our rushed, computer-obsessed society, schoolchildren increasingly are taught printing for a year or two, given a year of slapdash instruction in cursive, and then introduced to the keyboard sometime around grade three. It’s not difficult to imagine a time, maybe a century hence, maybe sooner, when only experts can decipher the dips and curlicues of handwriting styles so prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The author’s perspective is nuanced and interesting; she doesn’t just spend 200 pages wringing her hands. You can read the rest of my appreciation, including a brief description of Florey’s very practical solution, at the NPR site.

For other perspectives, also positive, see Michael Dirda’s for The Washington Post, Albert Mobilio’s at Bookforum, and Cullen Murphy’s in The Wall Street Journal. The image above, of students practicing the Palmer Method, is taken from the Journal review.

Bookforum’s Cultural Obituaries series to debut 4/9

Bookforum‘s “Cultural Obituaries” discussion series begins at the New York Public Library on April 9, with Making Sense of Black Nationalism in the Obama Era, an event organized around a forthcoming piece by Victor LaValle. Yesterday I asked my friend Chris Lehmann — co-editor of the magazine and a fellow LaValle fan — if he could tell me a little bit more.

Although reluctant to give too much away, Lehmann said that LaValle’s essay both “explores his embarrassing exploits as a wannabe black metalhead” and describes how his Ugandan mother was surprised, on immigrating to North America, by the concept of “blackness.” (In Uganda, Lehmann explains, “blackness” lacked any power as a social descriptor; tribal affiliations defined a person’s background and status.)

The essay traces, from LaValle’s teenage metalhead days through the election of Barack Obama, the evolution of the author’s (and his mom’s) thoughts about the nationalist conception of what it means to be black. On April 9, Debra Dickerson, Peniel E. Joseph, and Ta-Nehisi Coates will respond.

The second event of the series, Fiction in the Age of Inequality, will feature David Simon, Richard Price, Dale Peck, and Walter Benn Michaels.

Flannery O’Connor was her own monstrous reader

Flannery O’Connor’s famous acceptance-letter rejection might lead you to believe that she tended not to doubt her writing. Brad Gooch’s new biography reveals otherwise.

At seventeen, O’Connor was invited to contribute to the high school paper. “‘I don’t know how to write,’ Mary Flannery answered. ‘But I can draw.’”

And years later, in the first iteration of her talk, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Southern Fiction,” she said:

“When I sit down to write, a monstrous reader looms up who sits down beside me and continually mutters, ‘I don’t get it, I don’t see it, I don’t want it.’ Some writers can ignore this presence, but I have never learned how.”

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s weekly events

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled and posted by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30 pm, and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to Ms. Cerand at lauren [at] maudnewton.com by the Thursday prior to publication. Due to the volume of submissions, events cannot be considered unless the date appears in the subject line of your message.

MON, FEB 23: Marlon James reads from The Book of Night Women at Barnes & Noble, Court Street in Brooklyn. 7PM, FREE (Also, Tue 24, 6PM at Hue-Man in Harlem). And, Jen Bekman (20×200, Hey Hot Shot!), art vs. technology innovator and everyone’s favorite “fast-talking, nervous blond,” speaks as part of Ignite NYC. 6:30-10PM, FREE. Continue reading…

Happy weekend from the hay hook killer

Charles William Bruce, otherwise known in la casa de Maud as the great-grandfather who killed a man with a hay hook, has always been one of the most compelling characters in my personal deck of Notorious Ancestor Playing Cards. And now he’s the second forbear — his wife Rindia being the first — to whom I owe an apology.

June 1916 articles from the Dallas Morning News, Dallas Times-Herald, and Dallas Dispatch confirm that Bruce really did kill his former friend George Grimes — and with a hay hook. But the “difficulty” arose in a feed store, not in a bar. And Bruce was acting in self-defense.
“It is said,” according to the Dallas Dispatch (below), “Bruce’s testimony in [a trial in which Grimes was sentenced to five years for 'mistreatment of a female relative'] caused the bitter feeling between the two. Grimes was pardoned after less than two years, and since then has threatened Bruce’s life.”

Evidently Grimes lunged at Bruce, who fended him off with a hay hook jab to the intestines. Grimes brushed off the puncture wounds, “which had not appeared serious at first,” and carried on as usual until peritonitis set in.

Bruce was arrested and charged with murder, but in the end a grand jury ordered his release. I think he died sometime between the 1920 census and Rindia’s remarriage in 1929.

(Bruce sired my mother’s charming lothario father, Robert, who reportedly married thirteen times, and was shot in the stomach by one of his wives.)

On Marlon James and The Book of Night Women

Last year I met the very talented Marlon James by accident at a PEN event. Afterward, he joined my friends Mark Sarvas and Amitava Kumar, and me, for a marvelous dinner at which I ate too little while drinking brown liquor. James and I talked about William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and Jean Rhys, and I argued (passionately, but not, I fear, entirely lucidly) with Sarvas and Kumar about James Wood.

It was the kind of evening that makes me love living in New York City, except for one thing: even though my acquaintance with Marlon James has nothing to do with my immense admiration for his new novel, The Book of Night Women, I have a rule against reviewing books written by anyone I’ve ever talked to for more than two minutes.

But I can and will be interviewing him about it here,* and am putting together an event featuring it, and I hope you will all pick the novel up in a bookstore and try it out. Be sure to read a few pages before you decide that the dialect is too difficult. It is not too difficult.

The Book of Night Women focuses on a group of female slaves who plan an uprising on a Jamaican plantation, but it’s so much more intense — by which I mean terrifying and romantic and depressing and destabilizing and complicated — than that description suggests. I have no idea how he wove all the strands together the way he did.

You can watch James talking about the story above. There are raves in the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and Bookslut. Megan Sullivan of Harvard Book Store loves it, as does my friend Marie Mockett (a writer I’ll be featuring alongside James and photographer Stephanie Keith at a “Powerful Women” event on May 1 at Housing Works).

Here’s part of a note I sent the author at Facebook the night after I got back from England, when I read the book in one sitting.

Hang it all, I was supposed to take a nap, and then wake up and do some work today. Instead I read your amazing book. Once I started, I couldn’t stop, even though I turned the light off several times and put the pillow over my head and had both cats lying on the bed with me. I would last three minutes before I picked up The Book of Night Women again.

James reads twice next week, on Monday and Tuesday, and is also featured on March 8 with National Book Award winner Annette Gordon-Reed at a Girls Write Now event.

* Updated 4/2009: My interview with Marlon about The Book of Night Women.

On Karan Mahajan’s Family Planning

My first contribution to NPR’s Books We Like is devoted to Karan Mahajan’s Family Planning.

Most of us can’t bear to think of our parents having sex. Yet our very existence is proof that they do, or at least once did.

Karan Mahajan’s entertaining first novel, Family Planning, takes this conundrum as its starting-point. Sixteen-year-old Arjun, the oldest of thirteen children, walks in on his parents while they’re doing it on the nursery floor. Nothing about “Papa bubbling uncertainly beyond [Mama's] huge stomach” seems appealing. “Was this sex,” Arjun wonders, “or — swimming?”

Read the rest, and an excerpt from the novel, at the NPR site.

Undercover artist, undercover drone (and never the twain shall meet)

Terry Teachout, a writer, critic, and good friend, writes about a logistical problem I know well: the double lives many musicians, writers, and artists, of necessity, lead.

I recently went to a nightclub to hear a musician whom I know and like. The next morning I got an e-mail from my musician friend, who asked whether I’d recognized the woman who waited on me. The waitress, it seemed, was an actress whom I’d praised in my Wall Street Journal drama column on more than one occasion. “I am totally embarrassed,” I replied. “It was the context — and I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her offstage.” To which my friend responded as follows:

She didn’t mind — she said she preferred that you not see her in her Clark Kent guise. That would be like someone in the business catching me in secretary mode. We all have to do our time in the trenches, don’t you know.

I do know, very much so. Many years ago I worked as a teller in a downtown Kansas City bank, a job that allowed me to pay the rent while simultaneously playing jazz and writing concert reviews for the Kansas City Star on the side. It was one of the most painful experiences of my life, and the only thing that made it tolerable was that for some inexplicable reason, the people whom I knew in my “real” life as a writer and musician almost never came into the bank to do business. Had they done so, it would have broken my heart.

The 1904 drawing is of Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse, where he worked from the ages of 8 to 12.

The Smart Set: Lauren Cerand’s weekly events

The Smart Set is a weekly feature, compiled and posted by Lauren Cerand, that usually appears Mondays at 12:30 pm, and highlights the best of the week to come. Special favor is given to New York’s independent booksellers and venues, and low-cost and free events. Please send details to Ms. Cerand at lauren [at] maudnewton.com by the Thursday prior to publication. Due to the volume of submissions, events cannot be considered unless the date appears in the subject line of your message.

MON, FEB 16: “Slow and Steady Wins the Race is a clothing label presented as a quarterly clothing diary: past editions: sunglasses, shoes, sweats, pockets, etc (you need it). Beginning at 7pm on February 13th for one week, Slow and Steady Wins the Race presents ‘Birthday’ for its 21st collection – piñatas, birthday cakes and even some bubbly, very fun and very brilliant.” At Kiosk. Continue reading…

Lincoln memorabilia fiesta for Presidents’ Day

The Library of Congress is celebrating the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth with a special exhibition of his most famous writings and relics (that aren’t lost to time).

For those of us not in D.C., the library digitized some of its Abraham Lincoln Papers a few years ago, and you can browse them online.

All three series … are of a document type called “General Correspondence,” which includes both incoming and outgoing correspondence and enclosures, such as reports, pamphlets, newspaper clippings, extracts, and copies of items. General Correspondence can also include memoranda, notes, drafts of speeches and like matter, created independently of correspondence and filed chronologically.

Pictured above is Lincoln’s January 19, 1865 letter to Ulysses S. Grant.

Elsewhere, curator of photography Carol Johnson has assembled a Flickr collection of Lincoln images, from the earliest known likeness in 1846 to shots of his funeral. The Law Library of Congress has made available some of its own holdings. And even Marvel Comics will mark the occasion.