How I Learned To Love Pulp
On The Occasion Of The Birth Of Lewis Fry Richardson
“He would peek into the curtained windows, or, climbing upon the roof, peer down the black depths of the chimney in vain endeavor to solve the unknown wonders that lay within those strong walls.” Edward Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes
I never quite had the sort of undergraduate experience of which great stories of studious behavior might be told. In fact, of all the metrics one might use to evaluate the success of failure of a course of study, there is really only one that I found worth remembering. It was the measure of the number of credit hours attempted.
My efforts began earnestly enough. I had finished High School a year early, and having learned that time spent studying was more a measure of boxes checked, I was motivated to continue that effort forward. I knew that the requirements were graduation were finite. 120 semester hours across a number of predefined categories. A bit of learning here, a bit of focus there. While each path wasn’t precisely certain, there was enough commonality amidst the requirements to know that I could begin “checking boxes” as I looked to better define what it was I was interested in doing.
I didn’t wait for the formal beginning of what was to be my first fall semester. Instead, I set about fulfilling the requisite coursework in formal reasoning. I sat out to prepare myself for what I had anticipated would become a rigid course load by beginning to rectify the short comings in my own education in Mathematics.
My days that summer came to have a comfortable cadence to them. Each morning I would wake up and begin, almost immediately, to update myself on any new movements in the world of music. I would look for bands releasing new albums. I would look for new work by writers I knew about. After spending an hour or two so engaged, I would devote a block of four hours to my coursework.
When in the course of that work, I stumbled into something worth considering, I would re-balance my efforts so that I could devote as large a portion of time to wrestling with ideas that were new and overwhelming as long at it took to ensure that they weren’t. When I found what felt like “a point” or something that I knew would be of use in subsequent seasons of my life, I lost interest in the effort. I would then balance again, as I could feel I was working against a deficit.
The pace was grueling, but I didn’t once stop to reflect that the level of engagement I was demonstrating was to run cross-purpose with the performance that is expected of rising learners engaged in formal study. I didn’t bother to think about how such a frenzied effort to pursue a path of devotion to reasoning out in one’s mind could so easily become the sort of fixation that obfuscates one’s ability to engage with many of the other enjoyable things that make up a richly lived (and fittingly examined) life.
Such a level of activity is finite. There is a limit to the number of 16 hour days one can work. As one can feel the close beyond the narrow window of opportunity enjoyed by many a youth, this truth can take on a more and more tyrannical tone. Still, I struggled on.
By the time I had finished my prescribed course of study, I had attempted 240 semester hours–double the requirement for an undergraduate. I came to understand why that number was half as high as what I had tried to achieve–I never wanted to read another thing written by a serious thinking person ever again.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t, either–at least not for the space of nearly one solid year.
The trouble was, I couldn’t as readily shed the impact that attempt had on my lifestyle. I had a home full of books. Wall to wall shelves in a dining room that, save a table and a simple set of speakers was otherwise entirely empty. I had collected a great cross-section of humanity, and all who entered my home would have to pass through this room to get to anything else. My past interests were so prominently displayed, that I could no more hide it than I might suppress the many plain and precious truths I had gleaned from my examination of lives lived throughout time.
I would get questions from friends and visitors that would require me to reflect on what I had learned. Sometimes, they were questions about technical things like how one might measure this or isolate that. Other times, they were questions of detailed and methodical process. Of the history of process. On rare and cherished occasions, they were long conversations about a feeling.
On these and many other topics, I was dutiful participant, offering up what I could to point someone in the direction of something they may find of benefit. On rare occasion, I would note with a tinge of envy the enthusiasm for an idea each person I interacted with seemed to have.
I could match that enthusiasm in my mind. I could understand it. I had seen it once, and I had read about others who had seen it before. I could readily explain when one thing happened, what impact it had on a selection of acolytes and how an idea was reacted to by those who were reacting to it. If the topic were one in which I had amassed a bit of breadth, I could even anticipate what a reaction or objection would likely be. By reflecting a bit on the probability of any one reaction, I could predict with a good measure of certainty what input I should make to keep an interaction moving forward.
I could understand all sorts of reactions, but I couldn’t feel it.
I knew I couldn’t go on in that way. I knew that the fruits of such an effort would be an empty and a barren life. I knew I didn’t want that.
As such, learning to decide to react to a development in my own voice, readily became a chief focus of mine. It became a new focus. I stepped back, and in an effort to determine what had been lost, I asked myself what had changed between the time I last felt as though I were able to accomplish such a thing and now.
I remembered that I had spent a tremendous amount of time consuming cultural material in my youth.
As a middle-schooler, I and a few close associates would leave school as quickly as we could and spend six or seven hours an evening practicing guitar. In High School, I had replaced that level of fervor with a study of reading and writing, which had in turn lead me to where I began my undergraduate studies. In the time I wasn’t working on those efforts, I was consuming in earnest catalogs across the world’s great libraries of film and television. Towards the end of those studies, I had turned the same level of attention to identifying the sourcing of each product I consumed in my daily life.
Whatever the task, when I would find a thing, I would devour it in earnest. I would look at it in its own rules and try and decide how it worked. When I would find a pattern (whether in a system or in work of the arts,) I would decide how it could best be applied. This reflection was no different.
Working along that process, I wondered if there wasn’t something to the sorts of content I had been consuming. When I would engage with a thing simply, because it brought me enjoyment and for no other reason, I would often learn a great number of things.
I set out to test this.
I still remember my first book. I began, by reading Garrison Keillor’s Homegrown Democrat. It was simple. It was conversational. It was about a serious thing and written with none of the gravity oh so many ascribe to such topics.
And, when I finished it, I made sure to find a copy of every spoken word bit of story telling he had released. I noted the deceptive simplicity in the structure of weaving a story together from a bunch of disparate threads.
When I had finished with it, I again faced my earlier problem. Knowing I needed to keep my efforts, but not knowing where, when and how to go about it.
I found a collection online of Ian Fleming’s early Bond books, and danced my way through the poorly OCR’d words–only ever pausing occasionally to reconstruct a badly garbled sentence. The words were light and the visuals were not overly wrought.
The content was readily digestible.
I should spare you the full accounting, but from here, I dove deeper into the pulp crime and science fiction genres. I read what only few short seasons earlier, I would have decried as trash.
As I worked from bit of pulp to even pulpier pulp, I didn’t stop to worry about deeper messages or ‘problematics.’ In fact, I worked to consciously silence that impulse, as I had found that the voice one uses to critique a thing, all too often reveals what one was coming to that thing with the expectation of finding in the first place. I was interested in what Aaron Copland called “the sheer pleasure of the musical sound itself.”
I have long wondered about what series of events might need to conspire to write a seminal text like “Weather Prediction By Numerical Process.” To collect an array of insights like:
“W. V. Ekman in 1905 pointed out, with reference to the sea when a steady
state has been attained, that the total momentum, produced by a tangential stress on
the surface, is directed at right angles to the stress, and is equal in magnitude to the
stress divided by 2w sin(f). Thus the momentum produced by the stress is quite
independent of the value of the viscosity or of its variation with height. This is
true provided that the quadratic terms in the dynamical equations produce only a
negligible disturbance, and that will be so if we take, as our standard of what the
momentum would be in the absence of stress, not the wind deduced from the isobaric
map, but the actual upper wind.”
and to reassemble them, considered as parts of a functioning whole.
I had occasion to return to this work this morning, prompted in part by a reminder that it would take more than thirty years for Lewis Richardson’s work to become actionable. The computing power simply wasn’t there to work through the necessary calculations in a time that could produce actionable projections for the people who might find such a thing useful.
Why might someone then set out to create such a thing? A thing that could only ever service the horizon of progress. Such techniques weren’t novel. They had been employed in the past by scores of early meteorologists including Cleveland Abbe, who Wikipedia tells me had come to be known as “Old Probability,” no doubt in large part due to his ability to utilize patterns others found difficult to engage with in sum. It was likely these very calculations that lead to Robert C. Miller’s efforts to organize a warning system for tornadoes–an effort that no doubt was responsible for the saving of an untold number of lives.
I have come to observe that such a problem is commonplace–particularly in our current times of hyper-exposure to information. Some are able to digest these large expanses of knowledge. They are able to discern trends and from those trends derive principles that help them to accomplish things that to many are entirely inaccessible–and in some respects, I am certain, downright magical.
The practice, of course, is often anything but.
It was that simple truth that lead me to rediscover a fondness for what many would dismiss as “bad” writing. To some, many of what have become my favorite texts wouldn’t even be called “writing” at all. I think that’s something delightful.
From time to time these little complexities, so brilliantly couched in simplicity are discovered only to be quickly forgotten, as the work goes on. Two commonly cited examples of this might be re-reading the Alice series against the backdrop of a critique of the culture of Oxford or recognizing that Izzak Walton’s The Compleat Angler is more than a book on the simple joys of fishing.
These are but a few of the rich opportunities for engagement that surround us. “Back To The Future,” raises questions that are worth asking about time. A cartoon marketing gimmick works to make a deep conversation about the nature of reality far more palatable to an audience of people who should, at the very least, understand that it is occurring.
When we work in ways that are ordered, it is easy to identify what job needs to be accomplished. We spend so much time obsessing about the things that we do not know that one can quickly reduce life to a finite window of time with which one can check a certain number of boxes. We can do what we can make space for, and no more or no less.
There are other things.
Some of those things are far more engaging than all but an astute observer (be it one prone to describing in numbers or in words, in tones or against a backdrop of experimentation) might have occasion to react to.
It isn’t always simple to know where you’ll find something that makes you feel alive, but what I learned as I came back to “pulp,” was that it was more important to spend the time looking for it.
What you find won’t always be immediately useful, but the path you’ll take to get there will help to put your experiences back into the context of all the other sorts of experiences people have had over the span of history. It gives you a language to go back too–and that is near universally accessible.
This post originally appeared here.