There is a further twist. In both art and science, perfectly symmetrical patterns can be monotonous. Indeed, there’s a sense in which symmetry is the opposite of information. If I showed you one wing of a butterfly, you could easily sketch the other; if I showed you a single paling, you could draw the entire picket fence. Since the missing pieces can so easily be reconstructed, they carry no new information.
If, by contrast, we want to represent or store new information, it follows that we need to find ways to break the symmetry in order to encode our data. If successive palings in the picket fence differed in some way – say, if each were painted either white or blue at random – then the symmetry (and your ability to draw the whole fence) would be lost. Replace white palings with zeroes and blue palings with ones, and we have a binary representation of a number, the basis of digital data storage and manipulation.
When people react vociferously to the latest “change” in a treasured fictional universe, we are tempted to respond that it is “just a show” or “just a movie”—but stories that have endured for more than a generation, continually inspiring new narratives and whole traditions of interpretation, are no longer “just stories.” There is no reason that our modern myths could not play as generative a role for future culture and politics as the stories of the Greek gods or Hebrew patriarchs did for past generations, and the history of those older traditions shows that there is no reason that prequels should not be part of that cultural reckoning. The problem with the current glut of prequels is not that they have chosen a flawed or illegitimate genre, but that they are so often telling the same old story at bottom: a story about how our cultural heritage belongs exclusively to the owners of capital and our modern myths exist only to increase shareholder value.
When I was pregnant, every time someone asked me if I planned to breastfeed, I stammered and avoided eye contact. Of fucking course, what do you think I am, some kind of monster? I felt like the person had just asked me if I wanted to be a real writer someday. Obviously, I thought about it all the time but I didn’t want to jinx it by talking about it. Declaring my intentions felt too vulnerable, too potentially humiliating. The question was not whether I planned to breastfeed the future baby but whether I would physically be able to. What if the time came and the baby didn’t latch on or my body didn’t produce enough milk? What if my boobs couldn’t get it up?
The internet was full of stories about women struggling with just that. It was impressive but scary to read about them turning their lives upside down, willing to try or do anything if it meant they could check off this box. Take herbs, chug water, eat special cookies, go to meetings, buy a scale so they could weigh the baby after every feeding, hire expensive consultants, pump around the clock, give up dairy, give up gluten, get their infants’ tongues and gums “clipped” so they could open their mouths wider, spend an entire week in bed naked with their babies.
Four years ago, Barbara Ehrenreich, 76, reached the realisation that she was old enough to die. Not that the author, journalist and political activist was sick; she just didn’t want to spoil the time she had left undergoing myriad preventive medical tests or restricting her diet in pursuit of a longer life.
While she would seek help for an urgent health issue, she wouldn’t look for problems.
Now Ehrenreich felt free to enjoy herself. “I tend to worry that a lot of my friends who are my age don’t get to that point,” she tells the Guardian. “They’re frantically scrambling for new things that might prolong their lives.”
What do I love about this book? For starters: Dorothy Parker. Rebecca West. Hannah Arendt. Mary McCarthy. Nora Ephron. Janet Malcolm. With Sharp, Michelle Dean has essentially gathered ten 20th century literary lodestars for an all-female intellectual history party thrown between the covers of a single book. The price of admission to this critical gala: "the ability to write unforgettably," and being labeled "sharp."