It’s the first semester of freshman year at Carnegie Mellon. I’m enrolled in Calculus for Science Majors.

After the midterm, I skipped a couple of the weekly recitations. Then, when I finally did show up, I looked for my test in a pile of graded assignments.

On one midterm, in the space marked, “Name _______”, someone had written the word “Calculus.” I recognized the handwriting as my own.

I brought the test to the teaching assistant. “I think this one’s mine.”

He shook my hand. “I’ve been studying you for years,” he gushed with facetious excitement. “I’m your biggest fan, it’s such an honor to meet you.”

The Family Stones

Calculus is Latin for stone. Calculi, stones.

Let me introduce you to another member of the Calculus family.

William T. Vollmann’s seven-volume Rising Up and Rising Down outlines and describes the Moral Calculus, a decision process by which one can determine whether violence is justified.

At a book signing, I suggested to the author that the Moral Calculus would make a good iPhone app; Vollmann concurred.

I met Vollmann again in early 2015 when he invited the Seattle Public Library crowd to join him for a drink over at the Hotel Vintage bar. We conversed. I mentioned the app again, and he said it would be fine if I built it. And if I ever learn how to program again, I just might.

Use case: 
You’re contemplating violence, but you’re not sure if it’s morally justified.

You open the R↑R↓ app and engage in an AI-powered dialogue:

“Are you bringing about a revolution?” 

“Do those for whom the revolution is being fought agree on the means and ends of the revolution?” 

“Have you sundered prior civil allegiances without creating new ones?”

“Violence NOT justified. Try again later!”

The first volume of Rising Up and Rising Down contains the decision tree of the Moral Calculus. The other six volumes contain illustrative case studies based on Vollmann’s extensive travels, interviews, and research. This combination of theory and examples reminds me of the MBA case study method, in which you imagine yourself a titan of industry to demonstrate how you would react in a given situation. If you work through enough case studies, you develop intuition for how to run a business.

I reckon that if you think enough about violence, you’ll be better prepared for it.

Because when you’re not prepared, you may forget your own name.

Further reading

William T. Vollmann fans await his latest: Shadows of Love, Shadows of Loneliness, a two-volume collection of photographs (vol. 1) and drawings, prints, and paintings (vol. 2) available Dec. 6, 2022. Hint-hint.

The abridged Rising Up and Rising Down is in paperback. The seven-volume set is a bit harder to find, but there are rumblings about McSweeney’s releasing an eBook version soon.

I own the seven-volume Rising up and Rising Down thanks to the peerless and incomparable Debbie Sarow at Mercer Street Books. We had spoken about Vollmann soon after the Seattle Public Library event. When she came across the set, she knew exactly who to call.

Debbie also introduced me to Martin McClellan, co-founder of Seattle Review of Books (2015-2020), which published my review of The Dying Grass along with several other book reviews and essays that I’ll include on the blog from time to time.

We lost Debbie in 2018, and she is dearly missed. I encourage you to read remembrances from Martin McClellan (“Remembering Debbie Sarow,” Seattle Review of Books, Aug. 24, 2018) and Paul Constant (“Mercer Street Books has become a world-famous neighborhood bookstore,” Seattle Times, Aug. 25, 2022).

My remembrance of Debbie is this entire blog. It occurs to me that my multiyear project to complete an online Ivy League curriculum is part of a larger undertaking: To read as many books as I can from every shelf of my favorite bookstore.