Less Ambitious

The truth about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat trick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance bepopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent, an itinerant carnival, a migratory tentshow whose ultimate destination after many a pitch in many a mudded field is unspeakable and calamitous beyond reckoning.

The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way. For existence has its own order and that no man’s mind can compass, that mind itself being but a fact among others.

Brown spat into the fire. That’s some more of your craziness, he said.

Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

And if you sat at the dinner table long enough, whether in punishment or in refusal or simply in boredom, you never stopped sitting there. Some part of you sat there all your life.

As if sustained and too-direct contact with time’s raw passage could scar the nerves permanently, like staring at the sun.

As if too-intimate knowledge of any interior were necessarily harmful knowledge. Were knowledge that could never be washed off.

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for.

Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov

Hard Landing Epigraph by Thomas Petzinger

Hard Landing by Thomas Petzinger

While Trippe pursued his lofty ambitions overseas, the mail contractors operating inside the United States absorbed themselves in the more worldly concern of making a buck. The Post Office paid the airlines by the ounce but charged the customer by the envelope. Thus Eastern Air Lines found it profitable to stuff envelopes with wet blotters and send them by airmail; the shipping fees from the Post Office exceeded the cost of buying the stamps. Similarly did Varney Speed Lines (later Continental Airlines) introduce a line of Christmas cards weighing a full ounce in its principal hub city of Boise. Other airlines began conducting internal correspondence by registered airmail, as regulations required the Post Office to secure even a single registered letter in a sack with a 16-ounce lock.

Hard Landing by Thomas Petzinger

The trouble is that essays always have to sound like God talking for eternity, and that isn’t the way it ever is. People should see that it’s never anything other than just one person talking from one place in time and space and circumstance. It’s never been anything else, ever, but you can’t get that across in an essay.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig

And yet, and yet… Denying temporal succession, denying the self, denying the astronomical universe, are apparent desperations and secret consolations. Our destiny […] is not frightful by being unreal; it is frightful because it is irreversible and iron-clad. Time is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire. The world, unfortunately, is real; I, unfortunately, am Borges.

A New Refutation of Time by Jorge Luis Borges

Only a crisis - actual or perceived - produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.

Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman

After four or five readings I was able to breathe normally. I reread his outline until I lost its meaning, then got out my colored pens and began highlighting. The bullets and dashes and indentations were like the sleeves and straps and buckles of a straitjacket. I’ve often thought that the unit of measure that best suits prose is the human breath, but there was no air in my father’s sentences; he seemed to be suffocating inside them.

Documents by Charles D’Ambrosio

Back at the orphanage, a day earlier, one of the kids, Ruslan, had asked me a riddle. There’s a donkey, he said, trapped on an island in the middle of the ocean. A volcano is erupting on the island and rivers of hot lava are flowing toward the donkey. In addition, all around the small island is a ring of fire. What, Ruslan wanted to know, would you do? I thought about it, came up blank, and said I didn’t know. And Ruslan, with a smile, said: the donkey didn’t know either.

Orphans by Charles D’Ambrosio

Upon reaching his destination, he declares, “I’ve made it,” in the tone that you or I would use to announce that we had successfully fed a cat.

Distant Emotions by Anthony Lane

Barkley: You know, I’d always thought that I was the best player, to be honest with you. I always thought, Michael Jordan when he started winning, he just had more help than me. So, when I finally came to Phoenix, I had told the late, great Cotton Fitzsimmons, ‘Hey dude, I’m the best basketball player in the world. We’re going to the Finals.’ And he said, ‘That’s why I traded for you.’

Barkley: I actually thought I was the best. I thought Bird and Magic just had better players. So, I said, ‘Listen dude, I’m going to the Finals this year. Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson… That’s what I need. We’re going to the Finals.’ He says, ‘Well Michael’s gonna be there.’ I said, ‘Cotton, I think I’m better than Michael Jordan.’ He says, ‘We will see when you get there.’

Barkley: So, we actually got nervous before Game 1. We struggled. The pressure got to the guys on the team. I played decent, but then I think the other guys were nervous. So Game 2, I’m talking to my daughter.

Daughter: Dad? Are y’all gonna win tonight?

Barkley: Baby, your dad is the best basketball player in the world. I’m going to dominate the game tonight.“ And I remember… I think I had like 46, 47. I played great. And Michael had 52. And I got home that night, and my daughter was crying, and she said,

Daughter: Dad, y’all lost again.

Barkley: Baby, I think Michael Jordan’s better than me.

Daughter: Dad, you’ve never said that before.

Barkley: Baby, I’ve never felt like that before.

Charles Barkley And An NBA Playoffs Anecdote That’ll Break Your Heart

In Hafiz’s conversations with Siddiqui, the informant, he had not only agreed to help get money to the Taliban but boasted that his grandson was “associated with the Taliban.” He had said that his daughter was a “devout follower,” and that the Taliban trained students at the school in “fighting Americans.” (Away from the informant, Hafiz was recorded warning his grandson that Siddiqui “talks nonsense” and should be indulged only because he planned to give money to the school. “He is a very nice person, but he is also stupid,” Hafiz said.)

The Imam’s Curse by Evan Osnos

Well, good Christ, how was I supposed to know all that, Hannah? Who looks into the fine points when he’s hungry? I’m eight years old and chocolate pudding happens to get me hot. All I have to do is see that deep chocolatey surface gleaming out at me from the refrigerator, and my life isn’t my own.

Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth

When it was decided to make the movie about his life called Serpico, Al Pacino invited the officer to stay with him at a house that Pacino had rented in Montauk, New York. Pacino asked him about why he had stepped forward, and Serpico replied, “Well, Al, I don’t know. I guess I would have to say it would be because… if I didn’t, who would I be when I listened to a piece of music?”

Wikipedia Entry on Frank Serpico

Once upon a time she met a marvellous professor of pharmacology, in whose laboratory she spent some time. He was world-famous and had worked in the USA, but had not a trace of arrogance, never spoke of his discoveries but always of his ‘team’, where only first names were used. That attitude is her ideal. She forgets that it is easy for world authorities to be friendly, whereas mediocrities have to show how important they are, or nobody would guess.

An Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin

Two laborers toil on a mountain. One digs a hole in the ground, the other fills it, one digs, the other fills. An onlooker is puzzled, “What are you doing?” “Usually we are three,” explains the digger. “I dig, Sasha plants a tree, and Misha refills with soil. Today Sasha is off sick.”

– Circularity by Ron Aharoni

Like many children and eccentrics, Tate can remind us how hard it is to share in another person’s inner universe; we have one of our own that is already often boring enough.

Form and Function by Dan Chiasson

“No, don’t be ridiculous. Let’s take a look at your work.” He was still looking at me, not the portfolio. “Eighteen,” he repeated, shaking his head. “When I was your age I was dropping acid and cutting high school. I was working summers in a fish factory in Secaucus. Secaucus, New Jersey.” He looked at me disapprovingly, as though I were somehow behind schedule.

“Maybe that’s what I’ll be doing when I’m your age,” I suggested.

Constructed Worlds by Elif Batuman

Ruling is hard. This was maybe my answer to Tolkien, whom, as much as I admire him, I do quibble with. Lord of the Rings had a very medieval philosophy: that if the king was a good man, the land would prosper. We look at real history and it’s not that simple. Tolkien can say that Aragorn became king and reigned for a hundred years, and he was wise and good. But Tolkien doesn’t ask the question: What was Aragorn’s tax policy? Did he maintain a standing army? What did he do in times of flood and famine? And what about all these orcs? By the end of the war, Sauron is gone but all of the orcs aren’t gone – they’re in the mountains. Did Aragorn pursue a policy of systematic genocide and kill them? Even the little baby orcs, in their little orc cradles?

George R.R. Martin: The Rolling Stone Interview by Mikal Gilmore

The experience and emotions tied to listening to Kid A are like witnessing the stillborn birth of a child while simultaneously having the opportunity to see her play in the afterlife on Imax. It’s an album of sparking paradox. It’s cacophonous yet tranquil, experimental yet familiar, foreign yet womb-like, spacious yet visceral, textured yet vaporous, awakening yet dreamlike, infinite yet 48 minutes.

Review: Radiohead’s Kid A by Brent DiCrescenzo

Essentially, I was being robbed of my right to feel self pity, which is the only redeeming part of sadness. And for a little bit, that was a good enough reason to pity myself.

Adventures in Depression by Allie Brosh

No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader. For me the initial delight is in the surprise of remembering something I didn’t know I knew. I am in a place, in a situation, as if I had materialized from cloud or risen out of the ground. There is a glad recognition of the long lost and the rest follows. Step by step the wonder of unexpected supply keeps growing. The impressions most useful to my purpose seem always those I was unaware of and so made no note of at the time when taken, and the conclusion is come to that like giants we are always hurling experience ahead of us to pave the future with against the day when we may want to strike a line of purpose across it for somewhere.

— The Figure a Poem Makes by Robert Frost

When Kléber discovered that Napoleon–whom he took to calling ‘that Corsican runt’–had left Egypt, the plain-speaking Alsatian told his staff: ‘That bugger has deserted us with his breeches full of shit. When we get back to Europe we’ll rub his face in it.’ That pleasure was denied him, for in June 1800 a twenty-four-year-old student named Soliman stabbed him to death. (Soliman was executed with a pike driven into his rectum up to his breast.)

Napoleon: A Life by Andrew Roberts

If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence

Middlemarch by George Eliot

Arthur checked himself into a small motel on the outskirts of town, and sat glumly on the bed, which was damp, and flipped through the little information brochure, which was also damp. It said that the planet of NowWhat had been named after the opening words of the first settlers to arrive there after struggling across light years of space to reach the furthest unexplored outreaches of the Galaxy. The main town was called OhWell. There weren’t any other towns to speak of.

Mostly Harmless by Douglas Adams

A man had left a Czech village to seek his fortune. Twenty-five years later, and now rich, he had returned with a wife and a child. His mother was running a hotel with his sister in the village where he’d been born. In order to surprise them, he had left his wife and child at another hotel and gone to see his mother, who didn’t recognize him when he walked in. As a joke he’d had the idea of taking a room. He had shown off his money. During the night his mother and his sister had beaten him to death with a hammer in order to rob him and had thrown his body in the river. The next morning the wife had come to the hotel and, without knowing it, gave away the traveler’s identity. The mother hanged herself. The sister threw herself down a well. I must have read that story a thousand times. On the one hand it wasn’t very likely. On the other, it was perfectly natural. Anyway, I thought the traveler pretty much deserved what he got and that you should never play games.

The Stranger by Albert Camus

Listening to a news broadcast is like smoking a cigarette and crushing the butt in the ashtray.

— Milan Kundera

I stand between two worlds, I am at home in neither, and this makes things a little difficult for me. You artists call me a bourgeois, and the bourgeois feel they ought to arrest me … I don’t know which of the two hurts me more bitterly. The bourgeois are fools; but you worshipers of beauty, you who say I am phlegmatic and have no longing in my soul, you should remember that there is a kind of artist so profoundly, so primordially fated to be an artist that no longing seems sweeter and more precious to him than his longing for the bliss of the commonplace.

I admire those proud cold spirits who venture out along the paths of grandiose, demonic beauty and despise ‘humanity’—but I do not envy them. For if there is anything that can turn a littérateur into a true writer, then it is this bourgeois love of mine for the human and the living and the ordinary. It is the source of all warmth, of all kindheartedness and of all humor, and I am almost persuaded it is that very love without which, as we are told, one may speak with the tongues of men and of angels and yet be a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal.

Tonio Kröger by Thomas Mann

The hell with that. If I’m afraid of having my dick cut off or something like that I don’t care to know it. That’s not a cure, it’s a humiliation, it’s a deus ex machina. I find out what’s wrong and bango I’m happy and go back to Chicago and spawn children and terrorize ten thousand people in whatever factory my father decides to give me. Listen, if you’re cured, everything you’ve gone through, everything you’ve learned is pointless.

The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer

In Adminposiolok, a badly shattered rebel-held suburb of Donetsk, I met Ivan Tokarev, aged seventy-eight, who had come to try to clean up his apartment in a large block. Every single apartment in the front of the building facing the Ukrainian lines had been destroyed or had been rendered uninhabitable. His was in the back. He showed me a hole in the floor of one apartment in which a shell or rocket had fallen, blowing up the flat of his son below. No one lived in the block anymore. His son and his family had gone to Russia. Tokarev and his wife, who had moved to a safer part of town, did not want to join them because, he said, it might be fine for a month or two but then everyone would start arguing, so it was “better to die here.”

Ukraine: Inside the Deadlock by Tim Judah

The boy stood up and got his broom and put it over his shoulder. He looked at this father. What are our long term goals? he said.


Our long term goals.

Where did you hear that?

I dont know.

No, where did you?

You said it.


A long time ago.

What was the answer?

I dont know.

Well. I dont either. Come on. It’s getting dark.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

“Fidget” begins with Goldsmith waking up: “Eyelids open. Tongue runs across upper lip moving from left side of mouth to right following arc of lip. Swallow.” He described each movement into a tape recorder, which was laborious. It took him an hour to get out of bed. By the afternoon, he was exhausted, and at around five he fell asleep. He awoke after an hour, anxious at having the evening and night to describe. He bought a fifth of whiskey and drank it while sitting on a pier beside the Hudson River. He began to slur his words, then he accidentally turned the tape recorder off, so he lost the rest of the day. The last chapter is the first chapter typed backward, with each gesture except the last one reversed.

Something Borrowed by Alec Wilkinson

In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread

— Anatole France

The next real literary “rebels” in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal”. To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama. Of overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.

E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction [PDF] by David Foster Wallace

Everybody is identical in their secret unspoken belief that way deep down they are different from everyone else.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

Listen. It does not seem good, the way she disappears into a time that passes before she sounds. Like a stone down a well. But you think she did not think so. She was part of a rhythm that excludes thinking. And now you have made yourself part of it, too. The rhythm seems blind. Like ants. Like a machine.

You decide this needs to be thought about. It may, after all, be all right to do something scary without thinking, but not when the scariness is the not thinking itself. Not when not thinking turns out to be wrong. … When it all turns out to be different you should get to think. It should be required.

Forever Overhead by David Foster Wallace

Thrashing in sleep or fever, clutching at the very air as if to pull it to him. And always there bedside she was, his, in thrall, bewitched, wiping and swabbing and stroking and tending, never a word of acknowledgment of the sheer horror of what he produced and expected her to wipe away. The endless thankless expectation. Never acknowledged. The girl I married would have reacted very, very differently to this creature, believe me. Treating her breasts as if they were his. Property. Her nipples the color of a skinned knee. Grasping, clutching. Making greedy sounds. Manhandling her. Snorting, wheezing. Absorbed wholly in his own sensations. Reflectionless. At home in his body as only one whose body is not his job can be at home. Filled with himself, right to the edges like a swollen pond. He was his body. I often could not look.

On His Deathbed, Holding Your Hand, The Acclaimed New Young Off-Broadway Playwright’s Father Begs a Boon, in Brief Interviews with Hideous Men by David Foster Wallace

Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was.

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller

They are playing a game. They are playing at not
playing a game. If I show them I see they are, I
shall break the rules and they will punish me.
I must play their game, of not seeing I see the game.

Knots by R. D. Laing

A son should respect his father
He should not have to be taught to respect his father
It is something that is natural
That’s how I’ve brought up my son anyway.

Of course a father must be worthy of respect
He can forfeit a son’s respect
But I hope at least that my son will respect me, if
only for leaving him free to respect me or not.

Knots by R. D. Laing

JILL     You think I am stupid
JACK   I don’t think you’re stupid
JILL     I must be stupid to think you think I’m
              stupid if you don’t: or you must be lying.
              I am stupid every way:
              to think I’m stupid, if I am stupid
              to think I’m stupid, if I’m not stupid
              to think you think I’m stupid, if you don’t.

JILL     I’m ridiculous
JACK   No you are not
JILL     I’m ridiculous to feel ridiculous when I’m not.
              You must
                    be laughing at me
              for feeling you are laughting at me
                    if you are not laughing at me.

Knots by R. D. Laing

One of the themes that I picked up in reading about you is that you don’t have necessarily the warmest bedside manner. I think you said at one point, “I don’t like people.”

I like people in the abstract.

On the individual level?

On the individual level I don’t know. The jury’s out.

In Conversation: Marc Andreessen by Kevin Roose

You might think the government is corrupt, and you might be right. But I’m surprised it isn’t worse. I’m surprised they don’t shoot us in the street. It’s not like we could do anything about it, except maybe die.

You Say You Want a Revolution by Chuck Klosterman

Momentarily I wondered how she would look if she took off her glasses and did something novel with her hair. Then, however, my main concern was her description of the crystalline X-ray diffraction pattern.

– The Double Helix by James Watson

Maurice himself only asked several questions of a technical nature. The discussion then quickly stopped with the expressions on the listeners’ faces indicating either that they had nothing to add or that, if they did wish to say something, it would be bad form since they had said it before. Maybe their reluctance to utter anything romantically optimistic, or even to mention models, was due to fear of a sharp retort from Rosy. Certainly a bad way to go out into the foulness of a heavy, foggy November night was to be hold by a woman to refrain from venturing an opinion about a subject for which you were not trained. It was a sure way of bringing back unpleasant memories of lower school.

– The Double Helix by James Watson

The gamification of fandom is alluring because it provides an application for the things you’ve learned—or think you’ve learned—in the course of wasting so much time that could have been spent reading Proust, or playing with your kids, or donating blood. It’s a hedge against existential despair, a measurable opportunity to “succeed” at what might otherwise be called futility.

Dream Teams by Ben McGrat

There were three hundred shot that first night. I remember Sukharev, my driver, boasting about what a hard night’s work it had been. But it was too many, because it was light by the time they had finished and they had a rule that everything must be done in the darkness. So they reduced the number to two hundred and fifty a night. How many nights did it last? Work it out for yourself: six thousand men at two hundred and fifty a night. Allowing for holidays, that makes about a month, the whole of April 1940.

Lenin’s Tomb by David Remnick

Like democracy, for example. What is that creature if not the offspring of literacy and ballistics? Once a peasant can shoot down a knight, the writing is on the wall, including the writing that says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident”. Self-evident because Sir Galahad doesn’t appear to be moving.

— Loaded by Garret Keizer [1] [2]

In September 2012, a philosophy graduate student working with McGinn reported him for sexual harassment. His emails to the student, later published in a legal complaint, included “this morning at 6 I had a handjob imagining you giving me a handjob”, and the suggestion that “we have sex 3 times over the summer when no one is around.”

McGinn’s own catastrophe avoidance strategy was to argue that “handjob” was a term relating to his philosophical work. He wrote a blog post, republished by Harper’s magazine, arguing, “Virtually all jobs are “hand jobs” in the second, semantic sense, for all human work is manual work—not just carpentry and bricklaying but also cookery and calligraphy.”

A Philosopher Accused of Sexual Harassment Started a Company to Advise on Business Ethics by Olivia Goldhill

Issue-driven politics in red-and-blue America is like a man whose appetite for a steak is greatly enhanced by his contempt for vegetarians.

— Loaded by Garret Keizer [1] [2]

Physical pain is like personality: it’s involuntarily expressive and idiosyncratic, but expressive only to the person experiencing it, and so idiosyncratic that any verbal representation of it is sickly inadequate and, to listeners especially, tedious.

— Fathead’s Hard Time by W. S. Di Piero