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Second Guessing

The drums on R.E.M.’s first album Murmur and its follow-up Reckoning sound completely different. I’ve listened to these albums on and off for twenty years, and I hadn’t paid attention to the drums until recently.

Here’s how it happened: I read J. Niimi’s book about Murmur, a delightful exploration of its recording, lyrics, and meanings. Then I sat and listened to the whole album through headphones. Just sat and listened. Then I read Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever, a book that, among other things, has reminded me how much I haven’t been hearing in the recordings I have. Then I decided to read a bit about how Reckoning was recorded. Then I sat and listened to the whole album through headphones. Just sat and listened.

And there’s a real difference: Murmur’s drums, recorded in a booth dedicated just to drums, are clean, distinct, a bit tinny–“disco,” according to one source I can’t find any more–and, to my ears, not really worth saying much about. But Reckoning‘s drums are rock-and-roll, strong, and intense. It sounds obvious to me now. I can’t unhear.

But here’s the thing: for years, I’ve always thought of those two records as having the same sound, more than any other R.E.M. records. They were twinsies, with what I’ve always thought of as similar, simple liner notes; similar, simple songs; similar, simple meanings.

How much of that judgment, though, came from my personal history with those two records–my first R.E.M. albums bought on CD, bought at the same time, shelved next to each other, and paired by me (not by them or by the sounds of their drums) as a sort of disc one and two of a double album?

Really, though, it’s more like this: there is indeed a double album effect going on here, but each album is a disc one and me, my body, and my memories are an always-present disc two.

***

Here’s Thomas Rickert: “ambience puts place, language, and body into coadaptive, vital, and buoyant interaction” (via).

Buoyant: it floats. I float. And I float because I’m enmeshed in something else that is denser than I am.

The spine of Reckoning: “File under water.”

***

I didn’t like R.E.M.’s first two albums all that much, at first. I wasn’t really their intended audience, either: I first heard them ten years after they were released, in 1992, when “Drive” from Automatic for the People (album #8) was on the radio stations I was starting to listen to. This was sixth grade, which I musically associate with Automatic, Pearl Jam’s Ten, Dr. Dre’s The Chronic, and Arrested Development’s Three Years. . . . 

Autumn Lockwood told me that R.E.M.’s old stuff was better; she made me a tape of Document (album #5, still something that sounds little like Murmur and Reckoning) plus her favorite two songs from Lifes Rich Pageant (“Superman” and “Swan Swan H”).

I liked it. I slowly decided I should methodically own the whole back-catalog, so I joined and re-joined and re-joined Columbia House and BMG until I had most of their albums on tape and CD.

I remember so much about the look and feel of how that music was packaged: Autumn’s yellow tape sleeve with hand-written song titles; my white Automatic tape; Michael Stipe’s changing face: airbrushed inside Eponymous, wrinkled and wise inside Automatic; my tape of Green so faded from leaving it in cars.

In the context of my rediscovery of this band that everyone else had known for a decade, I always lumped Murmur and Reckoning together as kind of weird sounding, with something distasteful that I couldn’t place. Lifes Rich Pageant somehow sounded right to me, like the R.E.M. I knew singing songs I hadn’t had the privilege to know yet. The first two albums sounded like a different band; they were part of a context I didn’t know anything about (early 80s college rock); they were a swimming pool I had been too young to play in.

But here’s what I wonder: Murmur and Reckoning were my first R.E.M. albums on CD. Was this a band that, for me, was fundamentally tied to the medium of the cassette? Was it wrong, or impossible, for me to enjoy them any other way? And what does it mean that I chose to get their oldest records on the newest recording technologies, like watching a John Wayne movie on Blu-Ray, or watching recordings of old musicals on YouTube, or listening to digital versions of old cylinder recordings?

No, those parallels aren’t right. It was more like taking a river–the entire experience of standing with your feet in a rushing, cold, fresh-smelling river–and shoving the whole thing into a 1-liter Nalgene bottle, and then sipping from the bottle, and then saying that the river isn’t your favorite river of all the rivers.

***

Milner’s book describes a visit he had with Dr. John Diamond, a man convinced that listening to digital audio is physiologically hurting us:

He encouraged all of his patients, no matter what issues they were working through, to make music a regular part of their lives–listening to it, and, if possible, playing it themselves. But recently he had noticed that music did not seem to be doing some of them any good. In fact, it appeared to make their ailments worse. . . .

It didn’t take him long to figure out that many of his patients were listening to records manufactured from digital masters. Could that be the problem? When he could find them, Diamond substituted analog versions of the same songs or pieces–sometimes even by the same performer–and the music once again proved therapeutic.

(via)

***

I know I want to write about R.E.M. and how my memories affect how I’ve heard their music throughout the years.

So naturally, I go to the section on the canon of memory in my dissertation. The first sentence of that section makes me physically jump back a second, because I think it coincidentally mentions R.E.M., but it turns out I’m just seeing it wrong. The sentence actually reads, “When I hear the word memory, I think of computer memory, in terms of hard drive space and RAM.”

This makes me pause. I wasn’t thinking about a computer’s “memory” when I started this post. But as I write, I’m streaming a 1985 R.E.M. concert from Germany in another browser window, a concert I learned about when I tweeted a quote from an online article about the band:

These days, R.E.M. is wrapped into my digital memory just as much as they were ever wrapped into my body’s memory.

***

20th-century composer John Adams once told an interviewer this:

There is a ten-year-old boy (not a student) who comes over to my house every week or so and plays his music for me. He has a MIDI sequencer at home, and his pieces are all polished and notated with his print software. I don’t discourage him for doing that, but I also point out that there’s no substitute for having plain, awesome musical chops: having a great ear, being able to perform well on an instrument, and having a huge, encyclopedic knowledge of music. Composers should know everything.

(via)

***

For a couple weeks now, I’ve been listening to the early R.E.M. albums over and over, checking out the special editions from the library, streaming various shows, reading the lyrics on various websites.

And in a digital, analog, distant, embodied sort of way, I’ve taught myself to love these records. Really, really love them. Eventually, I know I’ll move on to the next records, paying attention to them all in this new way, with headphones and lyric sheets in front of me. But I’m not ready yet. I want more early R.E.M.

(And in the back of my mind: can you manufacture love? Can you manufacture a river?)

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Musical Spaces, Patterns, and SoundClouds

Cover of Lingua Fracta

How could I turn away from a blue cover? Ah, blue.

I’ve been thinking through Colin Gifford Brooke’s excellent book Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media lately, especially as I’ve been considering how the canons of rhetoric (invention, arrangement, style, memory, delivery) apply to musical composition. Two pages from the book are especially sticking to my mind right now, so I’m using this space to explore them, all first-drafty-like. Followers, beware.

Brooke’s chapter on arrangement refashions the canon of arrangement as pattern, a middle ground he describes as between texts that are “painstakingly ordered” (91) or just tossed out there without any ordering. By thinking of “arrangement as pattern,” he avoids the linear world of “arrangement as sequence” (92) that doesn’t adequately allow for the kinds of movement folks do in hyperlinked, new media spaces. It’s a nice reframing of how texts are arranged, given how much bopping around readers do, especially (but not only) online.

I’m reminded of the glimpse into the word-processor-using writer’s mind that Cory Doctorow gives us in “You DO Like Reading Off a Computer Screen,” one of the essays in Content: “I understand perfectly — in the ten minutes since I typed the first word in the paragraph above, I’ve checked my mail, deleted two spams, checked an image-sharing community I like, downloaded a YouTube clip of Stephen Colbert complaining about the iPhone (pausing my MP3 player first), cleared out my RSS reader, and then returned to write this paragraph.” With that kind of readerly and writerly world online, content-creators still organize material, but into patterns can be experienced in multiple ways, not as linearly experienced sequences through time.

Here’s what I was thinking, though: music does move linearly through time. We hear it in a sequence. Yes, like hyperlinked text, there are examples of interactive pieces that change depending on the “listener”‘s behavior (Biophilia, anyone?), but I’m talking in general here. Usually, we experience the arrangement of a piece sequentially, not as a pattern. Different classical forms of musical arrangement (sonata, rondo, theme and variation) are inherently sequential, designed (in part) to reiterate musical statements in time recursively so we hear when those statements are adjusted, played with, developed. So I read this chapter thinking, “This is great and all, but it’s not what I was hoping when I saw pattern was coming up. I wanted to think about patterns cognitively (if that’s the right word, self)—as gestalts that listeners create when they perceive patterns in sequentially arranged music.”

But despite that part of my mind that turned off, I kept hitting roadblocks to that assumption; I kept finding fruitful ways that music (both classical and new media versions? Not sure…) intersected Brooke’s thinking about arrangement. For example:

Brooke spends a bit of time discussing databases, with del.icio.us as his particular example: how information can be arranged in a database that is arranged, patterned, yet still allowing ever-changing narratives as users move through the linked, annotated, rich material. Again, here I felt this discussion was awesome, but not applicable to music. But then Brooke makes a brilliant move toward comparing del.icio.us with Benjamin’s concept of collections, which are essentially databases with personal stories attached to them. “Once a collection loses the intimacy felt for it by its owner,” writes Brooke, “we might argue that it has drifted back toward the database end of things” (109).

And wow, what’s more “collectable” than music? What’s more amenable to the associations we load onto music, High Fidelity-style, as what the music means shifts along with our personal experiences when we encountered the music? Two more questions, from the cover flap of Geoffrey O’Brien’s Sonata for Jukebox: Pop Music, Memory, and the Imagined Life (which I serendipitously snagged at a thrift store two days ago): “How does music infiltrate your life and shape the way you remember it? What do you really hear when you listen, for perhaps the thousandth time, to a well-loved song, a song inextricably tied to who you are and where you’ve been?”

Of course, part of me isn’t sure why I’m bringing up this thought; just because I/we treat music objects collectably, as a database of meaning, that doesn’t say anything about how those musical objects themselves are arranged. In other words, what I do with my music doesn’t say whether it’s arranged sequentially or in line with Brooke’s “pattern.” I know that. I’m brainstorming, remember?

But the musical thoughts kept coming as the chapter continued, ending as it did with a discussion of tag clouds. My thinking went kind of like this: “A tag cloud provides an alternative navigation through a series of texts. You can hop from place to place in direct ways that aren’t possible in analog texts. What would that look like for music–i.e., a way to hop around a sequentially organized musical text in an ordered way?”

And the closest thing that came to mind: comments on SoundCloud files. It’s easier to show than describe (which is itself relevant whenever we’re talking about audio and visual texts):

Underneath the waveform, see all those colorful little icons? Hover over them, and you’ll see the comments that listeners have left on this track–not on the track as a whole, but on specific moments in the sequence where they wanted to comment. I’m not sure if it happens in this embedded version, but on SoundCloud’s site, if you’re watching the music move through time, these comments pop up automatically at the correct time, as if you’re hearing/reading the voice of commenter in real time–but that act of archived notes is replayable whenever the listener wants. And the whole track, linear as it is, is remarkably easy to hop around in, especially when the visual representation of the sounds is marked in key spots by the comments of listeners (or composers). The interface affects the arrangement of the sounds as we experience them. Which is just what Brooke is talking about in his book. Good stuff.

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Dracula Wordle

I’ve been reading Dracula lately, inspired by 1) the list of top free books for the Kindle on Amazon, and 2) seeing Nosferatu for the first time a few weeks back.

It’s a good read, if creepier than I expected for an 1897 novel, but I can’t get past one thing: the number of times Stoker uses the word whilst. I know it’s technically correct (these days archaic in the U.S. but fine in the U.K., says Grammar Girl)–especially for Stoker’s day–but it leaps out at me every time.

So I figured I’d create a Wordle to see just how often it shows up, pasting in the entire text of the novel:

Wordle: Dracula

(Click the image to see the full thing.)

There at the very top, mocking the rest of the words, is that dirty little whilst. Though I don’t have a count, it looks to have shown up about as often as other crucial Dracula words like death, opened (as in, “opened the crypt,” “opened the coffin,” “opened his mouth to reveal fangs”), and strange–and it may even be more prevalent than dark, though it’s hard to say.

So while I admit that I hoped/expected to see it show up as large as the giant-est words in the image, I’m still satisfied that it’s in the novel a bit ridiculously often [shakes head in exasperation]. (And what’s up with those big words in the center of the Wordle cloud? Isn’t the may and must duality intriguing? As if there’s a fundamental tension in the novel between what people can do and what they should do?) (And have I ever used italics as often as in this post?)

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Cracking Open Traditional Academic Prose

I’ve been drooling over Laurel Richardson’s Fields of Play (Constructing an Academic Life) this afternoon. In the section I read most carefully, she describes the process and reaction to her composition of a 5-page poem using the words from a 36-page interview transcript from a woman named “Louisa May.” It’s a beautiful piece, resonant in all the ways a poem should be. Here’s the beginning:

The most important thing
to say                           is that
I grew up in the South.
Being southern shapes
aspirations                shapes
what you think you are
and what you think you’re going to be.

(When I hear myself, my Ladybird
kind of accent on tape. I think, O Lord,
You’re from Tennessee.)

And so on. Louisa May tells the story of her divorce, pregnancy, and decision to raise a child on her own.

Richardson describes many reasons for the decision to use verse–including the admission that there are probably several reasons that she doesn’t quite know yet (147-48). In part, though, the form is apt because:

In the routine work of the sociological interview, the interview is tape-recorded, transcribed as prose, and then cut, pasted, edited, trimmed, smoothed, and snipped, just as if it were a literary text, which it is, albeit usually without explicit acknowledgment or recognition of such by its sociological constructor. (140)

She’s got me thinking about times I’ve broken the boundaries of the academic prose I was expected to write, and how those are some of my most pleasant memories as a writer. And that’s interesting–that it’s specifically boundary-crossing that I remember most, not the times when I wrote a poem in a place where a poem was expected, or a traditionally memoir-ish piece when that was expected. There’s something to the act of cracking open a seemingly closed door that appeals to me (though I think I should/could find a less violent metaphor for such a playful activity). So as an act of trying to create the memory of those activities, I’ll list them here. For example:

  • In 12th grade, I turned in some crazily obtuse poetry when asked to reflect on some of my academic writing.
  • Similarly, in a magical realism class in my 2nd year of college, I couldn’t find it in me to reflect on my semester’s writing–it was a portfolio class–in an unmagical, too-realistic way. So because I was 19, I typed up a poem in courier font with vague references to the impossibility of describing the magical in prose, which I remember included the (uncited) line from the liner notes of The Smashing Pumpkins’ The Aeroplane Flies High box set, “And don’t you forget it for one second,” to which the teacher wrote in, “I won’t.”
  • In my final semester in college, I prepared a portfolio of my best papers written throughout my four years and wrote a retrospective on what I had learned. Instead of an essay (which I think everyone else did), I pieced together a hodgepodge that is still one of my favorite pieces of writing ever, including a frame story of a witch threatening to suck my brain out with a spoon, a dramatic scene where an old Kyle talks to a young Kyle about the books he’ll like, a story about my granddaughter putting on headphones that allow her to hear the thoughts I was thinking as I drafted college essays, and a poem in iambic pentameter.
  • For my undergraduate honors thesis on Atlantis in literature, I included an introductory story about me drowning and two short stage interludes between chapters, where I tried to express different sides of my ideas about Atlantis, the uncertain complexity of my feelings and all that. Stuff like this:

Dorothy: I really like that I got to go here.

Silence. Phyllis gives no indication of hearing anything and stares directly into the audience.

I mean, it’s all kinds of stuff. But especially the name. I like that we go to Atlantis High School.

Pause.

Phyllis: It’s the same as every other high school.

Dorothy: No it’s not, it’s . . . different because of something about. . . . It’s different because it’s Atlantis. That’s cool, I don’t know.

Pause.

Phyllis: It’s not really very cool.

  • In my first course in grad school, I managed to offend James Slevin by writing another short drama between balding, full-of-themselves academics in a panel discussion and Walter Ong, back from the grave, who had some questions for them from the audience. Professor Slevin thought I meant the balding jerks to be him. Oops.
  • In a recent creative nonfiction graduate workshop I took with some brilliant MFA students and the brilliant-er Ira Sukrungruang, it was stinking hard for me to write standard memoir-fare. I kept feeling the need to play around, tell things out of order, overload the page with footnotes, make stuff up, and generally be an ass to my patient readers. Now, there was a lot of support for this buffoonery, even though I didn’t always pull it off, but it was clear that some of the better writers in the class thought my stuff was unnecessarily quirky, flashy, whatever. They were probably right.

So what am I saying? I’m not sure yet–like Richardson, I’m comfortable figuring out what I think about my writing practices after the fact. But I do know that some (all?) of my dissertation interviews are going to appear as poems. Updates shall appear as I proceed.

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Garfield v. Ginsberg: Arguing with Myself

I’m thrilled to begin teaching expository writing tomorrow, modeled on a professor‘s experiments in teaching expository writing as digital citizenship through blogging. The thing that is least decided at this point is the question of sound: how much shall we practice reading aloud, and how shall I explain why I believe in the live, voiced, spirited language that is both heard and read? (Yes, that’s shall. We’re in serious territory here, baby.)

Soaking myself in these questions, I picked up some old Peter Elbow this morning. In some ways I was encouraged, especially in his descriptions of how writing often trains our ears to pick up on mysterious resonances in writing. But he also says some things about audience that I’ll have to confront in a class about blogging–which is in many ways predicated on the crucial shaping effects of writing with audiences. In Writing with Power (the 1981 edition, bought in a low-ceilinged, yellow-lighted library bookstore in DC), Elbow writes:

Real voice. People often avoid it and drift into fake voices because of the need to face an audience. I have to go to work, I have to make a presentation, I have to teach, I have to go to a party, I have to have dinner with friends. Perhaps I feel lost, uncertain, baffled–or else angry–or else uncaring–or else hysterical. I can’t sound that way with all these people. They won’t understand, they won’t know how to deal with me, and I won’t accomplish what I need to accomplish. Besides, perhaps I don’t even know how to sound the way I feel. (When we were little we had no difficulty sounding the way we felt; thus most little children speak and write with real voice.) Therefore I will use some of the voices I have at my disposal that will serve the audience and the situation–voices I’ve learned by imitation or made up out of desperation or out of my sense of humor. I might as well. By now, those people think those voices are me. If I used my real voice, they might think I was crazy. (306)

There’s a lot there, and I know I’ve broken like every blogging recommendation by going on for so long. But I think his point needs to be dealt with: whether the voices we put on for audiences crowd out our ability to write with a real sense of power, real resonance, real voice.

I’ll be asking my students to write dialogues as freewriting on the first day of class, so I might as well try it here, since my feelings on this are kind of split and uncertain:

  • The part of me that looks like a 19th century photo of a staunch, bearded president, like James A. Garfield: Well, Elbow’s point has obvious problems. When, exactly, am I writing with my “real” self? No, really–I want you to point it out to me.
  • The part of me that looks like a hippy–perhaps if James A. Garfield stopped grooming, like Allen Ginsberg or something: But don’t you feel sometimes like you have a real self? When you write something that feels true and honest, doesn’t it feel true and honest and good? Couldn’t you point out those moments in your writing?
  • Garfield: Well, I suppose. But that’s not the point. The point is that I believe we always put on rhetorically chosen selves when we communicate with different audiences. These rhetorically chosen selves are collectively “ourselves.”
  • Ginsburg: Um, that’s really sad. Seriously, do you know how sad that sounds? You’re basically adopting the persona of secular humanism here, pushing aside all possibility of spirit, of true identity. And more to the point, you’re pushing aside the possibility that writing can be more resonant when writers push aside their fears of how audiences will judge them. That’s the real point here, isn’t it?
  • Garfield: But you can’t just push aside audience concerns, especially in the age of blogging. [Garfield pulls out an iPad or something in the portrait?] Audiences who don’t jive with how you’ve chosen to write won’t take the time to keep reading; they can go elsewhere, to places that fit their discourse style. Audience is king.
  • Ginsburg: If audience is king, then you’d better make sure that you don’t lose something personal and precious in the transaction. In other words, be careful that all that catering to audience doesn’t lead you to ape the content that you think those audiences want to hear. Say the things that you want to say, and to an extent, push the boundaries of what they expect, too. I mean, people like to be surprised, man.

So that’s that. I kind of thought writing this out would lead me to more fully embrace one side or the other, but instead I feel less decided than ever–but more comfortable with my indecision than ever. Nice.

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Background Music

I finished Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother last night (my second book read completely on the Kindle–and it’s free here, so why aren’t you reading it too?). It’s a fun YA read (interesting note on YA fiction: it doesn’t shy away from the sexy time but avoids the big MF bomb with underscores) that has me thinking about all kinds of privacy, terrorism, technology, hacking issues in fresh ways. Good stuff. It also ends with a few afterwords, including this quote from Bruce Schneier, security expert/hacker:

But really, security is a mindset. It’s a way of thinking. Marcus [the main character in Little Brother] is a great example of that way of thinking. He’s always looking for ways a security system fails. I’ll bet he couldn’t walk into a store without figuring out a way to shoplift. Not that he’d do it — there’s a difference between knowing how to defeat a security system and actually defeating it — but he’d know he could.

It’s how security people think. We’re constantly looking at security systems and how to get around them; we can’t help it.

All this is basically a rambling introduction to my thought for the day: background music. I’ve been working on and off on an audio submission for a special issue on “Writing with Sound” for the online journal Currents in Electronic Literacy, and part of what I’m thinking about is background music–in videogames, in silent films, in non-silent films.

And I find that the more I think theoretically about background music, the more I think about the background music that’s constantly around me. It’s like the Schneier quote: “It’s how [music] people think. We’re constantly looking at [or listening to] [music] and how to [make it, understand it, judge how it’s affecting us]; we can’t help it.”

I don’t really have much more to say than that. But really, here in Panera, what would my work be like with instrumental music playing from India or China or Ghana or New Zealand, as opposed to the Bach/Vivaldi/Scarlatti rotation they stick to? (That’s not critical, by the way; I love the music in Panera.) And in my car driving here, when I switched from NPR to Rubber Soul, my mood lightened, I started happily humming harmonies to songs I don’t really know; I was more adventurous, more casual. Walking from my car to my campus office with Portishead playing in my headphones gives the walk a different tint than it would with Pearl Jam.

I know, I know. This is all old news. There’s tons of work on movie sound design, real world sound design, videogame music, etc. etc. etc. But there’s something different between knowing something and starting to experience it, habitually drawing it to the forefront of consciousness. And that’s fun, and worth mentioning.

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Instrumental Music

I just finished reading Mark Evan Bonds’ Wordless Rhetoric: Musical Form and the Metaphor of the Oration (1991). He gives us a delicious 1799 quote from a fellow named Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder, who apparently is one of the founders of German romanticism. (Who knew?)

The context of the discussion: Bonds is describing people who would retroactively write programs for instrumental music. That is, they would listen to a Mozart quartet, ask themselves what it reminded them of–Lush, rolling hillsides! Deep, powerful oceans!–and then write essays telling people that these are the meanings of the works. This, says Bonds, “represents the antithesis of all the German Romantics stood for,” since they valued individual genius and indefinable, untranslatable beauty.

On that, here’s Wackenroder:

What do they want, these timorous and doubting sophists, who ask to have hundreds and hundreds of musical works elucidated in words and yet who cannot acknowledge that not every one of these works has a nameable meaning like a painting? Do they strive to measure the richer language by means of the weaker and solve with words that which disdains words? Or have they never felt without words? Have they stuffed their hollow hearts with only descriptions of emotions? Have they never perceived in their souls the mute singing, the mummer’s dance of unseen spirits? or do they not believe in fairy-tales?

Ouch! I think Herr Wackenroder is taking things too far, but his heart is in the right place: it seems important to me to embrace the undefinable as something worthwhile, though ineffable, transient, and so on.

But I still feel perfectly fine “programming” music in my own mind, imagining stories and settings that it could be representing, like scoring a film in reverse, where the score already exists but I need to invent the story. This is one reason why Explosions in the Sky is one of my favorite bands, and why this is my favorite song. We only get into trouble when we start claiming that our individual interpretation is the interpretation, right?

Side note: this book was due yesterday via interlibrary loan, so there were no renewals, so I spent much of yesterday rapidly typing my notes into Evernote so I could return the book. And then today I paste in this quote, which I think Bonds translated himself, and all I recorded was that it was from Wackenroder in 1799. Normally Google Books or Amazon previews would save the day: I could look up the book online and find the page and grab the exact citation that I stupidly didn’t record yesterday. But nope: even though this 1991 book is long out of print, Google Books only gives snippet view, and the page I need isn’t available at all. And by now, my ILL copy is being trucked back to wherever it came from. Bleah.

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