Helen DeWitt



the internet and everyone

john chris jones
(ellipsis, 2000)

italic = rabbit path
bullet = goat path
sheep reads everything

reading appetite

rabbit: eats only the tasty bits
sheep: grazes only on cultivated pasture for which it has developed tastes and habits
goat: can eat anything but refuses what is not sensible or of poor quality

book-reading style

rabbit: selects books and opens pages by chance (sometimes using numerical patterns or random numbers), seeking literary style or beauty more than content, remembers intrinsic features – e.g. that something was one third of the way down a left-hand page near the middle of the book – does not follow continuous text unless the book accords with its deeper intuitions (but ignores what does not fit these)

sheep: reads every page from first to last, reading every footnote, enjoying and believing everything. Does not realize when it is being misled or manipulated, is grateful for everything and won’t venture into unfamiliar pastures unless assured by fashion or recommended by critics or by word of mouth (but it cannot take in what is original or new, nor can it change its reading habits)

goat: studies the contents list carefully, also the index, tables, and typographic indications of the structure, questioning everything – it reads and understands the book thoroughly or else rejects it quickly if initial scrutiny shows it to be worthless (or is foreign to its own ideas)

Jacques le fataliste et son maître Denis Diderot (1786)

Comment s’étaient-ils rencontrés? Par hazard, comme tout le monde. Comment s’appelaient-ils? Que vous importe? D’où venaient-ils? Du lieu le plus prochain. Où allaient-ils? Est-ce que l’on sait où l’on va? Que disaient-ils? Le maître ne disait rien ; et Jacques disait que son capitaine disait que tout ce qui nous arrive de bien et de mal ici-bas était écrit là-haut.


C’est un grand mot que cela.


Mon capitaine ajoutait que chaque balle qui partait d’un fusil avait son billet.


Et il avait raison…

Peter Ackroyd (1985)

I was thinking on Sir Christopher, and I was considering our new Church of Spittle-Fields.

And what does a green-head say of these Matters? (I do not give a Fart for Sir Chris, says I secretly to myself)

Master, says Walter, We have built near a Pitte and there are so vast a Number of Corses that the Pews will allwaies be Rotten and Damp. This is the first Matter. The second Matter is this: that Sir Chris. thoroughly forbids all Burrials under the Church or even within the Church-yard itself, as advancing the rottennesse of the Structure and unwholesome and injurious for those who worship there. Then he scratch’d his Face and look’d down at his dusty Shooes.

This is a weak little Thing to take up your contemplations, Walter, I replied. But he gaz’d up at me and would not be brought off, so after a Pause I continu’d: I know Sir Chris. is flat against Burrialls, that he is all for Light and Easinesse and will sink in Dismay if every Mortality or Darknesse shall touch his Edifices. It is not reasonable, he will say, it is not natural. But, Walter, I have instructed you in many things and principally in this – I am not a slave of Geometrical Beauty, I must build what is most Sollemn and Awefull.

Le città invisibili
Italo Calvino (1972)

Le città e la memoria. 2.

All’uomo che cavalca lungamente per terreni selvatici viene desiderio d’una città. Finalmente giunge a Isidora, città dove i palazzi hanno scale a chiocciola incrostate di chiocciole marine, dove si fabbricano a regola d’arte cannocchiali e violin, dove quando il forestiero è incerto tra due donne ne incontra sempre una terza, dove le lotte dei galli degenerano in risse sanguinose tra gli scommetitori. A tutte queste cose egli pensava quando desiderava una città. Isidora è dunque la città dei suoi sogni: con una differenza. La città sognata conteneva lui giovane; a Isidora arriva in tarde età. Nella piazza c’è il muretto dei vecchi que guardano passare la gioventù; lui è seduto in fila con loro. I desideri sono già ricordi.

Invisible Cities

tr. William Weaver (1974)
Cities & memory 2

When a man rides a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city. Finally he comes to Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody brawls among the bettors. He was thinking of all these things when he desired a city. Isidora, therefore, is the city of his dreams: with one difference. The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man; he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are already memories.