Sunday, June 30, 2013

Podcast Episode 7: Fables

Fables, (re)told by various authors

This is a collection I put together to make up for the fact that each of the stories is quite short; in fact, the story I wanted to read the most, the first, is quite ludicrously short, and I certainly felt at the time that it needed some accompanying material to be justified as a podcast episode. (Off topic: check out how deep I am making my voice in the intro to this. I was super into honing my radio voice. It sounds a little goofy to me now, but it was really important to me at the time.)

The Appointment in Samarra, told by W. Somerset Maugham
The Camel and His Friends, from the Panchatantra, told by Arundhati Khanwalkar
The Snow Man, by Hans Christian Andersen
Godfather Death, from Grimm's Fairy Tales

I like how I felt compelled to clarify whose perspective the first fable is from. Seems a bit condescending now. Also, my attempts to project a super-deep James Earl Jones radio voice appear to be back, alas.

My intro to the second story makes it sound like it's going to be about The Cannibal and His Friends, which frankly might make for a more interesting tale. HOLY CRAP I totally forgot about the voice modification I used on myself for the lion voice. Weird. I guess it sounds kind of cool.

So I guess these are all about death and dying, huh? I wonder why I didn't just call the episode "Death Fables."

What the heck, God's voice sounds terrible in the last story. Seriously. The lion's voice was basically fine, but I made God sound like a buffoon. Blerg. I like how the King excludes half the human race from helping his daughter when he offers the reward for healing her. Also, Death is mostly cool in this story, and then ends up being a total jerk right at the end.

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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Podcast Episode 6: The Cask of Amontillado

The Cask of Amontillado, by Edgar Allan Poe

This was the Library of Babel special Halloween episode. The Cask of Amontillado is my favorite Poe tale, and is frequently read at the annual Halloween story-reading event in my apartment. The story is well-paced, with just the right blend of dread and suspense building throughout till the chilling conclusion.

I'm still freaked out about whether the "ll" in "Amontillado" should be pronounced as an "l" or a "y." I'm fairly certain it's a "y." (I think it's a Spanish name, that is.)

I believe we're in the end stages of the death of the podcast introduction, which has now evolved into a simple vocabulary lesson (though that's helpful for just about any Poe story, so I think it was a good choice). For some reason, I neglected to define niter, which appears throughout the middle section of the story, begriming the walls and serving as an indicator that they are in a damp place, bad for someone with a cough, and which, in my experience, most modern readers have never heard of.

I take back what I said about music levels in my last entry. Here the music is usually pretty un-intrusive in terms of volume, though I think there's probably way more music than there needs to be. I'm not sure it really adds anything in most of the places it's present. Occasionally you get the slightly unsettling effect I was probably going for. I appear to have been trying to use it as a substitute for sound effects for things like chains clanking and so forth, which may or may not have been successful.

I think my vocal work on this episode is pretty decent, insofar as I clearly tried to create different voices; the narrator is just my normal speaking voice, and Fortunato is a slightly lower register, speaking slowly and slightly slurred. I've never been drunk, nor do I have much experience with drunken people, so it may be an understandably poor imitation of drunkenness. I do think the ending is pretty creepy, which is the really important thing. 

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Friday, June 28, 2013

Podcast Episode 5: —All You Zombies—

—All You Zombies—, by Robert Heinlein

This story is from Robert Heinlein, celebrated science fiction author of the twentieth century. —All You Zombies— concerns not the undead but rather time travel, especially time paradoxes. It can take two or three readings to fully understand, like any great time travel narrative (see, for another example, the excellent, and wildly confusing, independent time travel movie Primer), so if you end up listening to the story and not getting it at all, I certainly recommend you check out the text for yourself. Few stories tackle the time paradox in such a fun and intriguing way.

I think the guitar music throughout is a little too upbeat for the tone of the story, (and too loudI never really mastered the proper levels for putting music under speech properly; also, this is certainly one of the stories where music interferes more than anything else) but whatever, at least it's kind of engaging.

I'm clearly uncomfortable speaking into a microphone without a script, but was also apparently too lazy to get around that by actually writing out my intro, at least for this one.

I'm pretty sure there's a less torturous way of pronouncing "ouroboros," but I probably didn't practice beforehand.

 I think my favorite part of the story is the "By-Laws of Time" at the end. Aside from that, I still haven't figured out what's going on at the very end of the story, in particular what the story's title is referring to. Still, the ending's got a wistful beauty to it that I like a great deal, and I think it's one of the few places this episode really succeeds. 

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Thursday, June 27, 2013

Podcast Episode 4: I, Cthulhu

I, Cthulhu, by Neil Gaiman

This story is Neil Gaiman's lighthearted take on H.P. Lovecraft's work surrounding the now-dead-but-soon-to-rise-again anti-deity Cthulhu. In it, Cthulhu dictates his memoir. I definitely recommend reading some Lovecraft before listening to this story; it's a humorous take on the utterly black and bleak universe that Lovecraft created, and the humor only makes sense if you've been exposed to at least a little of the blackness and bleakness. I'd recommend starting with The Call of Cthulhu and At the Mountains of Madness.

Around the time I created this episode, I also made a recording of Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space that was then lost in computer crash, and I felt it too time-consuming to re-record ('s a long story, literally). My introduction presupposes that you listened to this recording, which is of course impossible. This is the level of professionalism I achieved in my podcast production, ladies and gentlemen.

This episode predates my love of all things Neil Gaiman; I had never heard of him when I first read it, I just enjoyed the story. Nowadays my list of favorite Gaiman stories has to be at least 5 entries long to really be fair to the depth of my admiration (and the quantity of dude's work).* My memory tells me that I pronounced his name wrong in this recording, but apparently I got it right. In contrast, under the heavy influence of my ongoing linguistics education, I made the amusing choice to interpret the exclamation point in Ia! Shub Niggurath's name as an alveolar click, which is not, I believe, the canonical pronunciation at all. Speaking of clicks, I apparently lacked the wherewithal to edit mouse click sounds out of a couple places, notably the points where I overlaid two sets of vocals to give a weird quality to the gibberish Cthulhu occasionally spouts when dictating his memoirs. All that said, I still think this one is a lot of fun, especially if you know enough Lovecraft for it to be really funny. 

*Fine, since you cared enough to read the footnotes, I'll give it to you: Neverwhere, Stardust, The Graveyard Book, "Murder Mysteries" from Smoke and Mirrors, and in a related note to this post, A Study in Emerald (Gaiman has a bit of a Lovecraft obsession, if his bibliography is any indication).

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Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Podcast Episode 3: The Celestial Omnibus

The Celestial Omnibus, by E.M. Forster

In this story, a boy takes a bus to Heaven, which in this case is populated exclusively by characters from classic works of fiction. The reason I originally chose to read this story for my podcast: I read it in my favorite English class in high school, Honors Mythology. I had a wonderful teacher who I felt understood more about me, and certainly more about literature and words, than almost anyone I knew. She could just look at me and tell when I needed to say something, and always had the right word to say to get me to come out with it. This story is at least partly, if not in fact mostly, about the wonderfulness and transportative quality of a good story, which, as you may know, I believe in more than almost anything. This teacher taught me a great deal about such things, and I dedicate my reading of it to her.

This is the first podcast that I'm not really all that embarrassed about. I still think the music is really pretty good. Note also the fairly short and almost to-the-point introduction, well on my way to just dropping them all the way. I did a decent job with distinguishing voices. There are still some fairly bad line readings I was too lazy to go back and fix in editing, as well as some rumbly noises that should have been cut out or re-recorded. Other than that: good job, twenty-year-old me! Way to imbue this thing with that wistful, longing feeling (pretty close to the constant range of feelings you were having anyway 'cause of girls not liking you back and not knowing what to do with your life). Ah, to be young again.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Podcast Episode 2: Is He Living or Is He Dead?

Is He Living or Is He Dead? by Mark Twain

This episode is a short story from the America's greatest satirical writer, Mark Twain. If you have ever been or are planning on being a starving artist, this story will speak to you. It's got a really dry, sardonic take on the fate of the great artist in his or her lifetime.

I never fully came down on a great model for introducing episodes of the podcast. In this one, I tried to be moderately informative and fun; instead, it comes off as pretty scattered and silly, what with the tossed-off analysis of the tone of the story and the goofy echo-effect for the book title. Also, I made it sound like I actually read the late-period Mark Twain novel I sort of recommended, which is a lie; we read like a two-page excerpt from it in an English class once. I later pretty much abandoned introductions of any sort and focused on telling the story, which was probably for the best.

My vocal abilities are pretty sorely lacking in this reading. My voice is shaky and muddy, and I strike the wrong tone at the beginning of the story; you don't get the sense that what follows is going to be at all funny, or even particularly interesting, from my gentle, mellow, nasal intonations. It gets a bit better after the first couple minutes, fortunately. I think maybe I was trying to avoid the big puffs of air that come with "p" sounds in English and which are so time-consuming to edit out. Note also that I'm more or less guessing at how to pronounce all the French names for things. Thank goodness I didn't try a French accent for anybody. Though that might have served to distinguish the various characters, who I failed to develop separate voices for.

On the positive side: I think there's some good energy in the reading here, and occasional notes of real enjoyment in my voice as I read the story. I really do like this story a great deal. It's a silly idea, sure, but well executed and fun. I think the piano music at the start and end blends fairly well with the story; it sounds like the kind of thing old men might have on in the background while sitting around telling each other stories in a lounge somewhere.

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Monday, June 24, 2013

Podcast Episode 1: The Library of Babel

The Library of Babel, by Jorge Luis Borges

This story is the one my blog is named after. It's about a really, really strange and terrifying library. (The reason I named the blog after the story is that the Library in Borges's tale is said to contain all possible books, which, while a bit of an exaggeration, does a decent job of getting across the idea that this is a blog about basically anything.) I'm no Borges superfan, but just about everything I've read by him is either solid or utterly amazing, and almost always surprisingly weird. Like most of his stories, this one mixes the real with the fantastic in a compelling and unusual way.

Lord, I haven't actually listened to these recordings in years. I guess I was worried I would be embarrassed. And I was right, though there's still some good to be found here.  

I like the first part of the introduction here; I assume I intended it as something that would be repeated at the start of each episode, but I apparently became immediately embarrassed by it (the "and get someone to listen" is a bit cringe-inducing even now). The rest of the intro is pretty pretentious. I'd forgotten that I went out of my way to find relevant quotes for the subject, but it's clear to me that while I was trying to sound like I'd extensively researched and read on the subject of Borges, I probably just cobbled together whatever I found most readily on the internet. Sidenote: I promise my ability to speak Spanish in real life is less abysmal than this recording makes it seem. Maybe I was nervous at the time, but it's virtually unintelligible and, again, utterly pretentious. I could just as easily have used the quote by itself.

I've always liked the music for this one. It goes on way too long, as the music I wrote tended to do throughout the podcast. I left the metronome clicks in, which I thought sounded like water dropping. Eerily. I still think this was a solid idea.

The editing on this is pretty terrible. I'm still not a great editor, but on this episode there are a number of places where I had to go back and re-record something and insert it in the main recording, and these moments are extremely obvious to my ear.

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Monday, June 17, 2013

The Many Faces of James Davisson: Coda

Part of a series of Lists of Cool Things.

This is probably the right response to this particular beard.

And things got weird,
I started growing
Bob Dylan's beard.
"Bob Dylan's 49th Beard," Wilco

College is an important and formative time in the life of many young Americans. Most college kids take advantage of the chance to experiment with different behaviors, activities, and identities, trying to figure out what and who they want to be as adults in the world. While some of my peers chose to indulge in drugs and parties or try out alternative lifestyles, I chose to experiment with beards instead.

College was the first point in my life when I was both able and allowed to grow a beard, given that during my high school years my Catholic school didn't allow facial hair and in the summers my personal biology really didn't either. But on turning 18 or so, I found I was able to sport a reasonably good quantity and quality of facial hair, which I took to somewhat extreme lengths (ha!) by growing a monstrously great big bushy beard.

Even longer than this, though I can't find evidence now.

Eventually, someone pointed me to a blog which chronicled one man's Quest for Every Beard Type, suggesting that I embark on a similar quest. So I did, starting what I called "The Many Faces of James Davisson," or simply "the beard project," employing the method of growing a big beard and then shaving it into different shapes. Occasionally I would decide that I liked one of these facial hair styles and sport it for weeks or months at a time; at other times, circumstance would necessitate wearing one style or another for longer than was necessarily wise. I even graduated in one, the "handlebar + chin puff" you'll see below. Here are pictures of most of them (alas, all the pictures are bathroom selfies, as this was before the era of the front-facing camera phone).


Standard Mustache ("Copstache")

Horseshoe ("Biker")

Mustache + Soul Patch ("Zappa")

Extended Handlebar ("Dali")

Handlebar + Soul Patch

Beards without Mustache

Petit Goatee

Full Goatee

Chin Curtain ("Lincoln")


Beards with Mustache

Chin Puff + Handlebar


Van Dyke


Full Beard


Soul Patch

Mutton Chops


Sideburns + Horseshoe + Soul Patch ("Winnfield")

I eventually quit the project before finishing the entirety of the beard chart from the original quest, to the disappointment of many. This was for the following reasons:
  1. People thought I was all about beards, to the exclusion of more worthy and interesting subjects. I put up all the pictures on Facebook, and people got excited. Like, more excited than I had really envisioned or expected. Folks started associating me strongly with facial hair enthusiasm, to an extent that I thought excessive. I would see friends I hadn't talked to in years, and they'd start conversations with the assumption that I wanted to talk about beards. I can't tell you how many times people sent me links to various sites announcing and picturing the winners of the World Beard and Moustache Championships over the years. I would get beard-based gifts from friends on occasion, too, which was rarely satisfying.
  2. There are lots of stupid beards. The chart is full of things that would take an inordinate amount of time to grow, with often silly results (see: most of the pictures above). After a while, it just doesn't seem all that worth it to put months into growing a beard just so I can take a picture with, say, the Sparrow
  3. Work. College is a great time to look like this: 

    Ha ha, college!
    Working a real job in the real world is not, really.
  4. Dating. I've had a hard enough time with dating over the years, not to mention the fact that I ended up trying an extensive stint at online dating.* It has historically been tough enough for me to secure a date, let alone doing so when I look like this: 
Come at me...dates? No, just stay away, probably.
Gradually people caught on that I had quit and stopped associating me so strongly with all things beard (though it has taken a really long time, and I still get comments about it every once in a while, which is fine—I still think the project was fun!) The best result of the project, aside from the series of fun pictures, has been that I now have several styles that I like and can rotate between: winter is now the only time I keep a full beard, with warmer times reserved for the goatee and the mustache+soul patch combo (or "Zappa"). We'll see whether these follow me into old age, but for now, I am happy to have tried so many and decided on a few that really fit.

*Not that I couldn't put up a profile picture with a cleaner look, but it's not exactly likely to go super great if you have a clean-shaven picture on your dating profile and you show up to the date looking like this: 

I wouldn't ask me on a second date; would you?

Monday, June 10, 2013

Salvation Army Congress 2013

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.

Hark! from ruin’s ghastly road,
Victims groan beneath their load,
Forward, O ye sons of God,
And dare or die for Jesus.

—"Storm the Forts of Darkness," Robert Johnson

This weekend I got to see the annual Salvation Army Central Territory Congress.

Congress* is when the Salvation Army seems most real. At other times, it is a somewhat scattered thing, and it's easy for members to forget that they are part of something bigger than their local church. Congress, though, brings people together from hither and yon to a veritable smorgasbord of Salvationism, complete with bombastic and cheerful music, seas of uniforms, reunions of friends long separated by hundreds and thousands of miles, and numerous semi-arcane ceremonies and rituals. It combines the feeling of a corporate retreat, an old-timey tent meeting, an alumni reunion, and a graduation ceremony. (That is to say: Congress is where Salvation Army folks hear about the state of the organization, sing songs and commit themselves to God, see old seminary classmates [if they are/were ministers] and friends, and ordain seminary students as ministers, respectively.)

While this annual event has the benefit of bringing members together and reinforcing their sense of purpose and identity, it also epitomizes and demonstrates the Army's many eccentricities: its strange military-style hierarchy, organization, dress code, and language, for one, as well as its somewhat unique status as both a tiny church and huge service organization.

These tendencies get expressed in a number of ways, perhaps the strangest of which (and a personal favorite of mine) is the Army's tradition of singing hymns about itself. While just about any church will sing hymns, for a variety of purposes including worship of God and reminding itself of its principles and mission, no church I am aware of sings songs as explicitly about itself as the Salvation Army does. I think this comes from the fact that the Army has a somewhat unique view of itself. Most denominations have a tendency to view themselves as in some way The Church, with the rest of Christianity somehow "doing it wrong" and therefore not as true to God's purpose as themselves. The Salvation Army, on the other hand, is, like, totally open to the fact that it is merely a segment of the larger church with a special mission, specifically to seek and save lost souls. Since this mission is quite challenging and often discouraging, it can be extraordinarily helpful to sing about it and relate it to a strong in-group identity through song.

Here's four hymns sung at the first service this weekend. Note that the only song not explicitly or implicitly about the Army is "Amazing Grace." Also note that there is an entire song just about the Army's flag.  (PS: Note how stoked we were to have THE GENERAL in town for Congress.)
When singing explicitly or implicitly about itself and its mission, and at all other times, really, the Army has a slightly unnerving tendency to encode martial imagery into things. It's not that the Army is about literal violence and warfare at all; it's just that it tends to view the world in terms of a stark conflict between good and evil, with Christians in general and Salvationists in particular called to engage on the side of good in the "glorious fight of love." The Army focuses on combating sin, but also on alleviating despair and destitution and providing healing and hope. From an outside point of view, this tends to come off as either a lovably eccentric expression of a passion for ministry and service to the lost and broken, or a slightly disturbing worldview that could result in more harm than good. My experience leans toward the former, but I'm obviously biased.

Just look at this thing! It's got swords and "BLOOD AND FIRE" on it for crying out loud.

Other martial/military eccentricities include a reverence for and prominent use/display of a flag, seen here in a parade of flags representing different seminary graduating classes (no, really; see :12 to :20 in the following):

As well as a tendency to encode military language into the organization and habits of the church, including calling seminarians "cadets," clergy "officers," and ordination "commissioning," as well as a bona fide military-style salute; check it out basically anywhere between :55 and 1:25 in this video, where cadets are commissioned by the General:

Watch live streaming video from salvation_army_media_tv at

The coolest part of this Congress was the participation of the General, the global leader of the Salvation Army. The current General, Linda Bond, is a pretty cool person. I went to Congress hoping to hear her speak about a vision for the future, to get a fresh perspective on what the leader thinks is right and wrong with the Army the way the current Pope is doing for Roman Catholicism. The General's vision was both simple and compelling: she encouraged people to stop focusing on being "relevant" to the world and finding the next gimmick to bring people in, and instead to focus on telling people the message of God's love for them. In other words: stop worrying about being a small denomination and start worrying about doing what you can to love and serve others. It was good stuff, and not unlike Pope Francis's focus on caring for the poor and bringing Catholics back to the church. In other words, I was not disappointed. 

*Apologies, by the way, if you're used to the word "Congress" referring to the U.S. Congress; Salvationists tend to use the word without any modifiers to refer to this annual event. See also: our tendency to refer to our church as simply, "The Army," another verbal source of confusion for newcomers and outsiders.

Photo Credits:
Photo 1: Ryan McFarland,, modified 
Photo 2:, modified
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Monday, June 3, 2013

On the Whole Bible Project & Biblical Poetry

Part of a series on Reading the Whole Bible.

Oh God! well look at you now!  
Oh! you lost it, but you don’t know how!  
In the light of a golden calf,  
Oh God! I had to laugh!
—"Neon Bible," The Arcade Fire

Five months ago I wrote that I would be starting a project to read the whole Bible. I pursued this project with a great deal of excitement at first, which slowly diminished to diligence, and then to lethargy, over the first half of 2013. I set out intending to finish the project after a few months (I gave it three, tops) and move on to other pursuits. This was misguided, though not for the reasons you might think. It wasn't the fact that the material was boring or alienating because of its ancient character (I was raised with this stuff, after all, and have spent much of my adult life investigating it), nor that it was simply too long to read all in one go (at ~700,000 words, it's pretty long, but I've engaged in similarly long projects without tiring out—I'm looking at you, A Song of Ice and Fire). The problem, my friends, was poetry.

Don't laugh.

Reading Biblical prose is easy for me. In just about any prose text in the Bible, one idea follows the next in a logical sequence, usually keeping to chronological and/or cause-and-effect order. If you encounter something weird, you plow through it until you come across something more understandable and interesting. There is a plot or a narrative of some kind, so it's easy to stay engaged because you want to find out what's next. Plus, there's a feeling of excitement and discovery when things are new, and a feeling of returning to something beloved when they are not.

Biblical poetry, alas, is a different beast altogeter. Unlike much of the poetry of the ancient Near East, Biblical poems are virtually never used to tell an extended story, with the rare exceptions being retellings or references to a story that the poet assumes is known by the audience (see for example "historical" Psalms like Psalms 78, 105, and 106). Even when a poem tells a story in such a case, there is never any exposition to help the reader along. And in all events, most Biblical poems serve other purposes.

So it was with some dismay that I hit the middle portion of the Christian Bible, which is almost exclusively poetic in content, and realized that the pace I'd achieved during the previous sections was not going to be sustainable. (In my Bible, the distance between the beginning and end of the predominantly poetic books [i.e., Job to Malachi] is a little under 700 pages, roughly one third of the total.) Reading Biblical poetry is taxing; it forces you to either slow down and take it in (to try to analyze it for deeper meaning), or to rush through it and exhaust yourself with a task that starts to seem meaningless after a while (this is what I did).

Because I got exhausted reading poetry, and because the project was keeping me from doing more fun reading, I stopped for the month of May. To get prepped to start again, I'm rereading a favorite book, The Art of Biblical Poetry, by Robert Alter. In it, Alter lays out the features that make Biblical poetry unique and beautiful (specifically, a kind of dynamic parallelism, where things are stated and then restated in a way that makes them more interesting and moves the action of the poem forward). Alter makes a very compelling case for the poetry of the Bible as a interesting and important kind of art, in addition to its religious meaning for many, myself included. Thanks to his work, I'm looking forward to restarting this project in the days to come.

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