Sunday, May 23, 2004

the curious incidence of the book of the dog-type

It really shouldn't surprise me that the same book comes at me from three directions at once -- some comments in a minute. After all, the worlds of personal recommendation, distributed book groups and blogs are all structured in obedience to the same large network rules. Such considerations, more than any flawed metaphors involving bees, ants or even caterpillars (c.f. Jean Henri Fabre) show that acknowledgement (of fame if you fancy) like wealth, flows to the already acknowledged. Not exclusively, even the most obscure nodes retain some links. I'r pant rhed y dŵr (Welsh: the water runs to the stream). The link-landscape gives a power-law distribution of link density, with the already famous (the book I mentioned, Alicia Keys CDs, Slashdot) getting more so all the time.

I didn't think it would be like this. I distinctly remember, aghast at the music charts as a teen, thinking that if only the record companies weren't pushing their top 10 crap at us then my friends and I would be able to listen to what we wanted (this was when the High Street was the market). Then in the Nineties, the same train of thought -- pushed along by the Internet! Hurrah: what better way than an autonomous network of like-minded punters recommending and identifying valuable works, so distributing glory all around! But now, faced with a wall of pink noise, it seems that I want the powerful pushers even more, just to stir up the little-linked-to sediment of the stream from time to time. Otherwise all we'll get is Bridget Jones and Lovely Bones. As long as the sediment-stirrers are not from marketing.

Okay, here's the bit about the dog book. This lovely work has totally blitzed the book charts here in the UK. A price war certainly helped (and one point most supermarkets were offering it at less than four pounds! Anyone else remember the NBA?). It's also the Book Crossing UK forum topic right now.

Back to the incident of the dog in the book-time. You've read the reviews I suppose, and probably the book by now, so I won't bother with any precis as such.

Make sure you check the UK Amazon reviews -- the US ones plaster the cake in excessive icing sugar and largely the misconstrue the local social conditions.

Is this book about the two cultures in microcosm? Christopher is a supreme technician in an intuitive world. Ahh lovely. Don't forget though, that he has real problems. He's not just a "different" boy. He groans involuntarily, blacks out, has violent outbursts, can't face getting on the Tube train, and wets himself. He's 15. Somehow though, he finds expression in logic and mathematics. But this isn't just something he finds solace in, it is what he does, what he is.

Look at that review again: Jackie Gropman "The appendix of math problems will intrigue math lovers, and even those who don't like the subject will be infected by Christopher's enthusiasm for prime numbers and his logical, mathematical method of decision making."

This seems to miss the point -- the bi-cultural gap all over again? Furthermore (and making no apology for pedantry) it's not "problems", it's a single proof. There's really no such thing as a maths lover, any more than a breathing lover or a walking lover. And the mathematics is not optional for Peter, it is the only natural language he has. Siobhan, his teacher/mentor, being of the other culture but able to see across the gap, recommends that he put it in the appendix.

Here is writer/producer James Schamus and director Ang Lee on the expressive role of the combat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
JS: in this film, the acting, the drama has a kind of martial arts choreography to it. It has that kind of grandness and scale. And the martial arts themselves are a kind of dance and very abstract art: motion, editing, movement, image.

AL: through the martial arts you express how you feel instead of just beating someone up. There is a dramatic quality to it.

JS: the people are expressing where they are, their ambiguities and ambibalences, the conflicts they feel. In most of the fights in this movie, the people can't fully fight, because emotionally they are torn. So, the fighting is a way of thinking and feeling and relating.

AL: [the two main characters] have to repress their desires. That's what counts in their business and in their lifestyle. It's a quality of how they look at themselves. Perhaps they only express themselves fully when they fight.

It's the same here. Just as if you were to close your eyes during the combat in Crouching Tiger you would not "get it", all of these pictures and puzzles in curious incident... are integral to the work. You have to read, not just look at, Peter's A-level examination answer, if you want to understand his character fully. The English text that ends the book is in fact a false ending (seemingly coming into the author's own voice "I have written a book and I can do anything") but the proof that Peter gives is the real ending. The structure and style of the mathematical work is expressive of Peter's own self.

Look how controlled and fluid it is. Look at the emphasis of the demonstration of the final inequalities: it is not equal. Not equal. Not equal. There is force in his poetry. Look at the impressive size of the coefficients he chooses to use to exemplify his point. No simple 3-4-5 triangle for him. And the final flourish: QED. I have shown what was to be demonstrated. I have power.

I love the way that graphs, equations and charts are integral to this book, especially given how popular it is. There's a growing amount of literature now that escapes the divide of letter and image. Perhaps, thanks to the laser printer, Gutenberg's revolution is over: Art and letters and numbers together again, at last. In places on the web text/image integration is already flourishing. In-text images are everywhere in books too now, and not just symbolic glyphs devised by the typesetter, like a nice leaping swordfish popped into the chapter numbers of a deluxe edition of a Hemingway. The exact image placed by the author (or authors) in the text now constitutes part of the work. Look at David Eggars' You Shall Know Our Velocity. His diagrams and scans are not schematic or notional graphical quotations. These are exactly what Eggars wants you to see and think about.

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