In Retrospect, Like Meaning

I was on the back porch smoking when it occurred to me to check the date of my account deletion. It has to have been a year, I thought, because it wasn’t so long ago that my sister texted me on the anniversary of my grandmother’s death. I read it out to my kids, because my son heard my weird exhalation and wondered why. They like to shoulder-surf me. They like to know why I respond like I do to screen ephemera.

Several weeks ago, I was weeping, loud, curled like a corpse. Or no, that’s not right: corpses arch, which is why fossils of dinosaurs always have their long necks stretched back. I was weeping like a woman has been suffering from “minor major depression” for as long as she can remember, which is about two years, maybe more, maybe it’s all roots and memories that stretch back as long as I can remember. That’s the thing about depression: it’s virulent and metastasizes, and all your cells bend to it eventually. All of me was bent.

When I rolled over, I saw her there, a shadow, my daughter, watching me from the doorway. The worst thing in all of this has been figuring how to talk to these beautiful, difficult children I’ve created about how sick I am, and how that is not their fault or responsibility. I remember being this age, and how, even at eight, I would bottle and stopper my emotions because, even then, I was afraid of being stupid or embarrassing. I still feel like I’m stupid or embarrassing most of the time. I wish there was a time when I could feel like a grown up, not this gangly impostor who cannot fit in the children’s chairs at parent-teacher conferences.

She came and laid herself across my body, hip to hip, her head on my chest. I figured how to quiet myself, but I could feel the tears roll down the sides of my skull and into my hair. I talked to her about myself, about my depression. She wants to know if this is something she can catch, which made me pause for a long while. I can see me in them both, my children, good things and bad, all the genetic comeuppance we joke about. No, I said, but this isn’t strictly true.

Later that week, she’ll ask me to go to a website with some silly signs — the kind that are mostly photoshopped — that we’d looked at some time in the last month. When I ask her why, she says it’s because she wants to see me happy, and she thought I was happy the last time we looked at these together. This kills me. Happiness is such an ephemeral quality, seen out of the side of the eye, like stars, or in retrospect, like meaning.

So, a year and a day ago I deleted my Goodreads account, two weeks after my grandmother’s death, in the long fallow darkness of a depression that only got worse. I have doubted that decision — I’m not going to lie — but not much. I know it was a misstep in some ways, but, as I said at the time, my reasons were mostly personal, and had very little to do with whatever the fuck bullshit was going on on this site. But there were missteps, unkindnesses that I was responsible for, maybe even cruelty. This kills me too.

Early in my therapy, I was ordered to stop apologizing, to stop assuming I was the one always at fault because I am the one who is always the worst. A part of me still thinks this is true, but I’ve mostly pinned her down, hip to hip, my head on her chest, my tears rolling down her face. I am not clear-eyed; I know this. But I still want to offer, at the very least, an explanation of my abrupt ending out here in the ‘verse. I was suffering from grief and depression, and I needed to cut myself off. I needed to stop. I did.

I said to my husband, in all the rictus of my coming to understand my illness, that my life felt like a limb that had fallen asleep, and was now coming to life. It hurts. It’s pins and needles all the time, and then bubbles, and then I can slowly put weight on it. I’m putting weight on it here, but it’s a dangerous, broken act.

I broke my foot this year too, like an asshole, kicking the edge of storm window leaned up in the back hall. Jesus, what a numbly stupid metaphorics. I could see the break, in the ghostly x-ray, and it was all frustration to clump around in an orthopedic boot. At night, in the dark, I would walk with a roll on the edge of my foot to protect my brokenness. Numb, dumb metaphors, they are everywhere.

One of my reawakening limbs has been writing again, because I cut that off a year ago with so much else. It’s taken me a long while to decide that writing wasn’t a problem — that it helped me more than it hurt — but it’s been hard to disentangle shit that’s bad for me from shit that’s good. I’m still iffy on whether this is good for me to write in this specific place, but I do want to perfectly and exactly apologize, in the capacity I can, for any I hurt I may have caused, and this is the place for it.

The really fucked thing about this declension of my brokenness is that I still haven’t come clean to many of my friends and family about the…about all of this. God, it’s so hard trying to be a person again, and even this may be wrong-footing my long process of recovering. Whatever, I guess. Every confession is a lightening. All words are stones on the ground. We’ll see if these words remain past a morning’s reconsideration.

Closer to Cracking the Voynich Manuscript

In 1912 in northern Italy, book dealer Wilifred Voynich bought an illuminated codex in an unknown writing system. Containing about 240 pages (though some are missing), the manuscript is written on vellum, and has been carbon-dated to the early 15th C. The manuscript has long been assumed to be a cipher – though that wasn’t exactly proven until analysis discovered a semantic pattern in the text; it could have been gibberish – and both amateur and professional codebreakers have taken cracks at it over the years. Nada. From this void of understanding, all manner of crackpot theories have emerged, with an emphasis on the alien/Atlantean memeplex of doom. Having a 15th Century unbroken cipher is like the god of the gaps of the secret history.

three pages from the Voynich manuscript, showing script and botanical drawings

But now, there’s been a pretty significant breakthrough with the manuscript. A botanist and an information technologist (I think this is a fancy term for librarian) compared the botanical illustrations with plant distributions of the time of the manuscript’s first recorded appearance, which is the late 1500s. (Why this doesn’t jibe with the carbon dating, who knows. Maybe the vellum was produced earlier or something; I’m no archivist.) The researchers eventually identified 37 plants and six animals in the codex from the New World, specifically post-Conquest Nueva España (New Spain). (Which is totally bananas on several levels; badumptss.) In addition to the New World plants, there appear to be similarities with a Mexican codex written at the roughly the same time, and the captions on many of the plants are in Nahuatl. Their full analysis can be found published at HerbalGram, and is entitled “A Preliminary Analysis of the Botany, Zoology, and Mineralogy of the Voynich Manuscript.” (Nice Oxford comma, bros.)

Once you place the manuscript on the right continent (or planet, even), it’s just a matter of time to break the whole thing. Like the Navajo code talkers, the codex wasn’t exactly in code, it was in a (now) obscure language. Given that the Spanish put so much of Central and South America’s cultural history to the match, the Voynich manuscript could end up being this profoundly important window into lost history. Jeepers, that’s just the coolest.

Amazon buys Goodreads!

Otis Chandler announced today that Amazon has purchased Goodreads, meaning Amazon now owns Goodreads, Shelfari, and a 40% stake in LibraryThing through Abe Books. (Though, I’m given to understand, the stake in LibraryThing is not a controlling stake.) Patrick Brown, community manager for Goodreads, issued the following statement when asked about review policy changes, which are forefront for many users (including me):

 Our review policy seems to be a frequent topic of concern, so let me reassure you that we have no plans to change how we handle reviews. We do not expect to switch to Amazon’s review policy. 

For those wondering if our site will continue to be supported, I can emphatically answer “Yes.” We are still trying to rapidly grow our team and we think this means exciting things for the future of Goodreads.

Having no plans to change the review policy doesn’t mean the review policy isn’t going to change. (Boy, that sentence has too many negations.) Here are three Amazon policies which could negatively impact the more reader-oriented community of Goodreads.

Profanity:

Not everyone likes cussin’, and I can understand a commercial venture keeping cussing out of their product reviews. It’s like a bookstore not dropping f-bombs in their window displays. (Although when Amazon deletes reviews for quoting the title of a work, such as what has happened for works like Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere: Three Novels or Snowballin’: I Fucked Frosty, that’s some crazy silliness that I can laugh at only because it’s so, so terrible.) (Full disclosure: I know the authors of both of these books.)

The real issue here is that Goodreads, as much as it has been about books, has always been a social network first. While there are the occasional teens on Goodreads – the terms of service specify you have to be 13 – the Goodreads community is largely made up of adults talking to other adults. (And, for serious, if you think people 13-17 haven’t heard profanity, you are living in a dream world.) More importantly, we haven’t been here to shill books, but to discuss them.

I can’t imagine Goodreads beginning to police for language though, partially because it would alienate so many users – out of several hundred Goodreads reviews, I’m sure I cuss in at least half – and partially because it would be expensive. Goodreads has been a largely unmoderated site. Reviews are only taken down if they are both flagged and actionable, and there is no huge staff counting nipples and making sure no f-bombs are dropped. It’s possible I’m being naive about how expensive a semi-literate staff would be, one that could run a quick search for Carlin’s seven. It is also possible I’m naive about how much Amazon cares about alienating Goodreads’s users, because with 16 million, there’s going to be plenty who think it’s just fine the profane get run out.

Down-voting:

The concept of “helpfulness” isn’t one that necessarily comes in to literary criticism. Nor does it matter much in the personal reaction, satirical piece, or completely off-topic nattering of some Goodreads reviews. I wasn’t a huge fan of the Celebrity Death Match when it occurred; it struck me as more pointless than the usual pointless stuff I engage in online. I, however, loved every second of the Shouting Teen Reviews when they were burning their way through the population.

I admit I don’t understand how this works, but it is my understanding that if a review is down-voted on Amazon enough, then it will be deleted as unhelpful. I have said this before, but Goodreads is a social network, and socially speaking, it is a disaster to give semi-anonymous human beings the ability to be semi-anonymously shitty to one another. Maybe the Celebrity Death Match was stupid to me, but it was a blast for those involved, and I don’t see how my interjecting a down-vote in the social enjoyment of others is anything but a bitch-move.

Obviously, the worry is that Amazon will change Goodreads from a social network to a product review platform, and herein lies the problem. Facebook will never ever institute a dislike button (which is not to say that Facebook doesn’t have its own issues) and Otis was always clear down-voting would never be a part of Goodreads with him in charge. He’s not in charge anymore, and all of this “we have no plans…” stuff is corporate bullshit and everyone knows it. Down-voting would result in the tyranny of the majority, and would give leeway to people with agendas – whatever they are – to try to spike voices and opinions that run against the current. The iconoclast can be fucking annoying, don’t get me wrong, and alternate voices are wrong as often as the mainstream ones. But getting down-voted simply for voicing an unpopular, silly, light-hearted, or off-topic opinion is majorly dumb, and hurts the social network.

Author Reviews:

I am an enthusiastic armchair participant in the roughly seven hundred thousand author-reviewer spats that occur on Goodreads (and the larger bookoverse) . While readers have always said some harsh stuff about books, in the age of social media, the rubbing of elbows between the average writer and the average reader has become…maybe not more personal, but certainly more possible. Goodreads has certainly leveled the field for a lot of indie, mid-list, and otherwise largely unknown writers. Classes of books, like romance or YA, which have been largely ignored by traditional media reviewing platforms, hav ound robust communities of readers on Goodreads. (Though I’m not even close to preteneding that Goodreads is the only place for this.)