July 2, 2012

The Observer's Book of Weather
Corina Bardoff

The Observer's Book of Weather by Reginald M. Lester and published in 1955 is an especially nice book. It is sea-foam green and approximately the size of a piece of buttered rye toast served in a diner with eggs, and as thick as a TI89 calculator. The cover is soft, and my favorite part is that the spine just says, WEATHER. The Reanimation Library acquired it for $4.00.

Imagine you are at a rented vacation home on the beach. It has been pouring for days, and, having already finished the book you brought, read the-day-before-yesterday's newspaper, and played innumerable games of Scrabble with your family, it is time to look through the bookcases. There will be a sun-bleached copy of Memoirs of a Geisha, magazines devoted to decorating beach houses, legal thrillers, and an assortment of bird-books, fish-books, sea-shell books, etc. A perusal of the bookshelves could take less than an hour, or several hours if you decided to flip through the magazines and look at all the pictures. Do not despair. You could do what I am about to do with any text, but I picked the The Observer's Book of Weather because it's raining, because it is such a nice book to hold, and furthermore, Andrew Beccone likes it.

Now I would like to briefly introduce you to potential literature and to the Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, the workshop of potential literature, who may or not approve of this essay. Founded in 1960, the OuLiPo is a mostly French group of writers, mathematicians, chess players, scholars, and 'pataphysicians who explore the intersections of math and literature. Here are some examples:

Raymond Queneau's Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes – One Hundred Thousand Billion Poems – ten sonnets with each line of each poem able to replace the corresponding line of any of the nine other poems, thus creating one hundred trillion sonnets, more sonnets than anyone could read in their lifetime even if one did nothing but read sonnets. The text, then, remains in a state of potential – below each line lies all the other possible lines, and beneath each poem, all the other poems you could be reading instead.

The OuLiPo also creates potential literature by inventing constraints for writers to use, for example: lipograms in which one or more letter is forbidden, and complex algorithms based on chess problems that dictate the structure of a text. The third way oulipians create potential literature is what concerns us here: through creative reading, which Daniel Levin Becker (an American member of the OuLiPo who just wrote an excellent book called Many Subtle Channels: In Praise of Potential Literature) says "differs from regular reading only in the reader's degree of complicity with the author – regardless of the author's desire for it."

Back to the beach house. You could of course read Weather straight through - uncreatively - for sense. It contains gems of information, like, "in very cold weather, where ice crystals are to be found in the lower part of the atmosphere, the refraction produces phenomena known as 'mock' suns and moons" – that is, one or two mirage suns or moons, perched on a halo around the sun/moon, like a chemistry textbook diagram of electrons orbiting a nucleus. These are also called sundogs, a term rewarded by a Google image search. You could read Weather straight through looking for bits like this, but I'm afraid that you would drastically reduce the book's potentiality that way. Instead, why not try reading the book as if it contained encrypted messages circa WWII, so that if we happen to learn in the course of our cryptographic studies that "the limit of twilight" is about 49 miles high, won't that be lovelier because of it? Or won't you feel that this "limit of twilight" is suspect, and isn't that a wonderful uncertainty that you created for yourself?

To warm up, let's try a barely mathematical technique invented by the OuLiPo: the N+7. In this constraint, every noun (or verb or adjective or whichever part of speech you choose) is replaced by the noun (verb/adjective/etc.) seven places down in the dictionary. Our beach house happens to contain a copy of the 10th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary:

What makes it rain? This is a quiche to which even weather expiries find it difficult to give a simple straightforward antagonist. There is a great deanery continually going on in the upper airbrush which has yet to be discovered, but we do know that raincoat depends on the amperage of instant replay in the upper airbrush.

At this stagehand we have to understand what is meant by instant replay. A mass defect of unsaturated airbrush becomes unstable when the rathskeller of temporal with heir presumptive exceeds 5.4°F in every 1,000 feldsher. When it does this it exceeds the cooling rathskeller of the mass defect of airbrush rising through the atomic mass unit, which means that the ascending airbrush will be warmer and therefore lighter than the other airbrush around it, so it rises just like a corkwood in water beetle.

First of all, we just tricked ourselves into reading the dictionary. Wasn't that fun? I bumped into all the air-words like airdrome and airmile, passed a cute picture of manatee, and discovered why the basement café at my college was named The Rathskeller. Enjoyable dictionary reading is like finding the magical curiosity shop in a middle grade novel: you have to stumble upon it or it won't appear for you. Secondly, you can read your probably hilarious N+7 to your family. Thirdly, you just climbed deep into Weather, and poked around in a collaborative kind of close reading.

Have you ever read Anne Carson? She's one of my favorite poets. A few months ago, I finished reading her collection of poetry, essays, and opera called Decreation. Directly after, I picked up The Art of War, and was cherry-picking for text to collage, when I discovered that Sun Tsu could sound a lot like Anne Carson:

The lowest form of war is
To Attack

I love his line breaks.

He ends and begins again.

If you didn't bring Anne Carson on vacation with you, no matter. It's still possible to make Reginald M. Lester sound like her:

In studying the behavior of the winds,
we must first realize that this planet on which we live
is continually spinning from west to east,
pulling the atmosphere with it.

very little weather
is encountered

Near the end of a fine spell
clouds will sometimes begin
to form
very high in the sky

Yellow is one of the worst colours

Another possibility: reading for meter. I am terrible at meter, but if you're not like me, go for it. Find some Alexandrines.

Daniel Levin Becker writes in Many Subtle Channels, "Whether or not the constraint is made explicit ahead of time, or ever, the oulipian reader is conditioned to be attentive to formal devices and clever lexical workarounds and things that look like clues – and to register the plot or subject matter, such as it is, on a secondary level. The oulipian reader...is convinced, beyond even the author's sworn testimony to the contrary, that nothing is accidental. The oulipian reader would notice that "The Raven" is a lipogram in Z." Nothing is accidental. If you were so inclined, you could find clues that Weather is a folk wisdom manifesto, a highly controversial political tract, or a riddle. I found plenty of clues that we should read it not as a scientific pocket guide for weather enthusiasts, but instead as a work of avant-garde literature. Lester refers to his imagined reader as a "student of weather," but there is clearly no such thing. There are those who study weather, certainly, but they would be more accurately called weather scientists, climatologists, or meteorologists. True, everyone in those professions once was a student, but it would be far more accurate to say they were students of Professor So-and-So or of Such-and-Such University. Everyone is affected by weather but to call everyone student of it is absurd; we are more like subjects of – subjugated by – the weather, as you and I trapped in the beach house know all too well.

Let's return to that word, "absurd." I believe Lester is referring to a semi-clandestine group of avant-gardists similar to the semi-fictional International Necronautical Society called "The Students of Weather" who refer to interested outsiders or allies as "Observers." Consider the list of other Observer books at the beginning:

The Observer's Book of BIRDS
The Observer's Book of WILD FLOWERES
The Observer's Book of BUTTERFILES
The Observer's Book of TREES AND SHRUBS
The Observer's Book of WILD ANIMALS
The Observer's Book of FRESHWATER FISHES
The Observer's Book of GRASSES, SEDGES, AND RUSHES
The Observer's Book of DOGS
The Observer's Book of HORSES AND PONIES
The Observer's Book of GEOLOGY
The Observer's Book of AIRCRAFT
The Observer's Book of FERNS
The Observer's Book of ARCHITECTURE
The Observer's Book of THE LARGER MOTHS
The Observer's Book of SHIPS
The Observer's Book of MUSIC
The Observer's Book of BIRDS' EGGS
The Observer's Book of COMMON FUNGI
The Observer's Book of MOSSES AND LIVERWORTS
The Observer's Book of WEATHER
The Observer's Book of AUTOMOBILES

Take a small step back from the 1950's British train station where it was assumed you would be reading the Observer books, and you see the echo of Borges' alarming list of animals from the invented Chinese encyclopedia Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge:

(a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

The Observer list starts out sane enough, but how exactly is the average person expected to observe freshwater fishes? Why only larger moths? Larger than what? And are not moths common insects? Can't the Emperor possess fabulous suckling pigs that tremble as if they were mad? Both jumble specificity and generality. Borges mixes existent animals with drawn ones, Frederick Warne & Co. Ltd. (publishers of the Observer series) mix natural phenomena with human-built objects, and stretch the meaning of observation with the inclusion of music. If you look outside Weather and find the complete list of Observer books, things get even stranger. Astronomy and cricket? Sure. But unmanned space flight and heraldry? Most astonishing of all is Observer book #99: The Observer's Book of Observers Books. Like Borges' "others" (also translated as "etc.") in the middle of his list, it does not come at the end where it should. #100 is Wayside and Woodland, published in 2003.

I have read The Observer's Book of Weather and can tell you that nights are usually calmer (wind-wise) than days, but at the same time I read many fictional (that is, not existing in reality) books: one of poetry, one a semi-serious manifesto, selections of a book about instant replays. You can read none of those books: like The Approach to Al-Mu'tasim (invented by Borges), Without fear of wind or vertigo (Calvino), or Gruppenführer Louis XVI (Lem), we can read them and we can't. This is rich, layered reading like the unidentifiable dessert my Russian neighbor served me. Authorship in Weather is deemphasized. Lester's name appears only once, while "The Observer's" is repeated over and over. This book is for you, and you have work to do.

Here's one more apt quotation from Many Subtle Channels: "My point about the teachings of the Oulipo, the takeaway for the blessed non-writers of the word, is that creative reading is no less noble, no less rewarding, no less potentially spectacular, than creative writing. To do either one well is simply to leave things more interesting than you found them." You will not sit back and passively hope to be entertained. You will make your own entertainment. You will find the beauty or the strange in seemingly ordinary things. Like a list of the names of winds: Harmattan, Haboob, Sirocco, Khamsin, Mistral, Bora, Föhn, Willy Willy, Southerly Buster, Brickfielder, Berg, and Chinook.

Corina Bardoff's work appeared most recently in Phoebe and is forthcoming in Libraries and Danger, published by Proteotypes. A member of the OuLiPo-inspired Writhing Society, she has led workshops on writing under constraint.

View The Observer's Book of Weather in the catalog.

Read other Word Processor essays.