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    What depressing novels are for

    And more highlights from the Ideas blog

    Good literature can offer an escape, especially in bleak times. When Washington politics feel especially hopeless, say, there’s consolation in a Jane Austen novel. But a new book argues that fiction doesn’t just work as a retreat. It can send us back out into the world revitalized for action, and it achieves this provocation through surprising means: by reflecting bleakness right back at us.

    In “Futurity: Contemporary Literature and the Quest for the Past,” Stanford comparative literature professor Amir Eshel looks at many recent examples of unremittingly dour fiction, including “The Road” by Cormac McCarthy and “Children of Men,” the P.D. James novel that was adapted into a 2007 movie starring Clive Owen.

    All of these works feature characters swamped by titanic historical forces. Eshel argues that this mode of fiction grows out of the real-life traumas of the last hundred years—the world wars, the Holocaust, genocide, 9/11. These events had many awful consequences, and one of them was to create a widespread sense of powerlessness, a feeling that the only thing we can do is mill around onshore while the tsunami sweeps in.


    Eshel suggests, however, that such grim visions usually also imply a way out of the morass. He coins the concept of “futurity” to describe the way that literature helps us face past historical traumas while also prompting us to remain optimistic about shaping the future—or, as he says in a video produced by Stanford, that humans “are the agents of their fate and not just victims to external circumstances.” It’s a nice idea, that the most depressing fiction is also potentially the most catalytic. In this way, authors are trying to say: I get it, things are awful, but if my characters can do it, so can you.



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    Children, new to television, want to reach through the screen to touch the people inside—and maybe expect the people inside to reach out and touch them. This kind of interaction is a fantasy, of course. Or it was until the Tangible Media Group at MIT’s Media Lab got involved. In a paper published last month, a team of five engineers introduced inFORM, an interactive computer system that allows a person on one side of a screen to physically interact with the world on the other side. How? A video shows an engineer, his movements tracked by a Microsoft Kinect, “reaching out” from a screen with hands simulated by a system of “actuators,” “linkages,” and “pins,” not entirely dissimilar to those fun Pin Art boards. In the demonstration video, he rolls a red ball around in his “hands,” aims a flashlight, and turns the pages of a book. It might be time to update what we tell our kids: No, that man can’t come out of the least not yet.


    Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at