Monday, November 06, 2006

Hate Mail

One problem with putting your work out in the public square is that you sometimes receive public criticism -- and mine often comes in the form of hate mail, sometimes through links, comments, or private e-mails. Though my hate mail usually comes from those who I refer to as Tolkienistas (a term of endearment) who feel I've slighted the good Professor in some way, I've also gotten hate mail from SpongeBob SquarePants fans, Julian of Norwich fans, and one very confused Paraguayan patriot who seemed to think I had insulted his country.*

I recently received the following e-mail from someone who appears to be a young undergrad at a large state institution -- we'll call her Judy. Beyond all the righteous indignation (ah, to be young again!) of her e-mail, I think I detected actual distress, a sort of disillusionment about this post of mine. I wanted to respond to her, but couldn't think of any way to do so without sounding mean or condescending ... so rather than just do so privately, I thought I'd enter my response here, and invite readers to help explain.

Her e-mail read:

Dear Professor Nokes,
I recently came across your blog titled, "In Favor of Banning Books" while researching for a paper in my Contemporary Mass Media class. Although as a professor of English you are more than entitled to your opinions, I find it unbelievable that you would support and blatantly promote the malicious and completely unreasonable act of banning and in your words, "burning" any piece of literature. I am surprised that a renowned professor of English, such as yourself, would fail to see the value in all pieces of literature. The blanket statements you make about "saving humanity" from "junior high poetry" clearly stand only as the naive opinions of a concretely close minded individual. Before "burning" any more literary works in the public square, perhaps you might want to take a second and analyze the deeper messages of some of the authors and works on your list of "aesthetically objectionable books". You may find that although some works may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, they may have some excruciatingly meaningful content that you have simply overlooked. Thanks for your time.
Sincerely,
Judy [the name I made up for her]


Before I get into the meat of my response, let me just say this -- "renowned professor of English?" I'm going to clip that part out and send it to my tenure & promotion committee. Just keep repeating that adjective next to my name: "renowned."

Seriously, though, I'm not sure whether or not Judy believes I am literally advocating book burning, since she puts scorn quotes around "burning." I'm going to assume that she is referring to the post itself as the "burning," but just in case there is any confusion out there, I am not really calling for public book burnings. Really. Nor am I calling for the literal banning of these books -- though I wouldn't mind if they fell out of print and were never read again. You can relax, Judy -- no real book banning or burning going on here. In fact, if you were to borrow a book from me and dog-ear the pages, I would probably burn you on the public square. The only thing I hate worse than dog-earring the pages is laying the book face down and open, cracking the spine (ooooh, how I hate that!). I don't highlight my books, I don't write in my books, and I don't use bookmarks that are so thick that they could hurt the spine.

You see, Judy, in this post I am using a literary form known as "hyperbole."** Hyperbole is exaggerating for effect. For example, when you say, "If I've told you once, I've told you a million times..." you are using hyperbole. You don't literally mean you've said it a million times; you are exaggerating to mean something like "I've told you so many times that it seems like a million, and you should really have understood it by now." When my mother came into my room as a child and told me "This is the worst pig sty I've ever seen," she wasn't really a professional pig sty critic who had mistaken my room for a barnyard. She was exaggerating for effect. Hyperbole!

You also write that you are suprised that I "would fail to see the value in all pieces of literature." Well, guilty as charged. Do you know what makes a work literature, Judy? At the end of the day, it is people like me who decide. A professor of English literature who sees value in all pieces of literature is failing at her job. Not everything that is bandied about under the heading of "literature" is great. Some of it is not even very good. Something that is considered of great value now might not even be in print in the next generation, and visa-versa. It is my job to make that decision.

See, when you suggest that I might want to "analyze the deeper messages of some of the authors and works on [my] list" -- well, I've already done that. Nothing appears on that list if I haven't read it. You'll notice that these are not popular works on my list -- they are all works of "literature," and when reading them I approached each and every one of them with respect. Unfortunately, in each case, I not only found them lacking, but I also found something so objectionable about them that I don't think they should be assigned to anyone to read.

You are young, and full of earnest vigor, Judy. Me, on the other hand, I am old enough to be aware of my own mortality, and to despair of all the things I'll never read -- this is the bitter sorrow of all English professors (and perhaps of all thinking people). You are immortal, but for me, time is a zero-sum game. Every hour spent reading one book is spent not reading another, and that time is gone forever. When I read a book of "literature" and it is lacking, that book has stolen time I could have used to read something better. Perhaps you think that I read looking for flaws and reasons to hate. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want to like the works that I read, because I want my time to be well-used, and when I can't find anything to like about it, I'm deeply disappointed.

Friends, that is my response to Judy. I give her so much space because I think I see between the lines a struggle to understand. If any others want to contribute to helping Judy understand how hyperbole and satire work, or want to explain just what it means for an English professor to read something of poor quality, please feel free to do so below. Please do not make fun of Judy, though, as I'm hoping she'll read this post, along with your comments, and come to an understanding of what that post is about.


*No, I'm not making any of those absurd examples up.
**Which is by the way, a 4 syllable word -- the last "e" is not silent, a fact I didn't realize until I went to university and, for the first time in my life heard the word pronounced that I had read my whole life.

24 comments:

  1. Lauren11:16 AM

    Before I get to the meat of your response Professor Nokes, let me just say this. Do not associate age with vitatlity. Perhaps you may not be aware that some are not blessed with, let's say an average life span, as others are. Keep that in mind next time you deem a young person such as myself immortal, for my end may be approaching much faster than you have assumed.

    Despite your greatest efforts, the response you posted was condescending to say the least. I completely regognized the sarcasm in your original post in regards to the burning of books. So, thanks for the invitation, but I do not need to relax. Secondly, I do, in fact, know what a hyperbole is, but thank you for spelling it out for me. I know you do not wish to actually burn literature and I would certainly hope you would never ban a novel. I simply think it disrespectful to deem works as completely worthless. I am sure you must have written some sort of work over your career and although they may not be of literary merit, you would probably object to them falling out of print.

    Furthermore, I believe you have misread my letter to you. I do know the difference between a work of literary merit and a work meant to read for pleasure, just as I know many other terms, like satire and hyperbole, which you have so unnecessarily defined for me. And on the contrary to what you claim I say, I do not wish for every book on the face of the planet to have deep meaning and be read by all. The point I am simply trying to make to you, Professor Nokes, is that I think it inappropriate to publicly wish for any work of writing to fall out of print. For, without the less meaningful works, the brilliant works would not be nearly as brilliant. Wouldn't you agree?
    Judy.

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  2. When "students" or "other people" use "quotation marks" (you called them "scorn quotes") around "certain words," they are attempting "professional criticism" for the first time, and ultimately it comes off as "pretentious" and "misinformed".

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  3. Lauren11:40 AM

    But in Judy's case, Nina, she was actually quoting words from Nokes' original post, not attempting a professional criticism. Maybe you are the misinformed one.

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  4. Lauren,

    I could go for the cheap hypothetical (i.e., "is it inappropriate to wish for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" to fall out of print?), but instead I'll ask whether it has occurred to you that it is the fate of most non-brilliant works to fall out of print? When books fall out of print, it happens -- not, nowadays, because of the malevolent designs of book-burners -- but because nobody wishes to read them anymore. Professor Nokes, in the post you objected to, is simply wishing that certain enormously overrated works of literature wouldn't be read so much anymore.

    And I'm not sure I agree with you that the brilliant works wouldn't be nearly as brilliant without the "less meaningful" works as foils to set them off. Is Paradise Lost any less brilliant when it stands in the company of King Lear and any more brilliant simply because it shares space in the marketplace of ideas with The Da Vinci code?

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  5. I could stir up more trouble by noting that Tolkien regularly wrote in his books. He even wrote in library books -- apparently you can still find books on the shelf at Oxford with Tolkien's complaints about the authors' arguments scribbled in the margins.

    Now, to respond to the first of Lauren's / Judy's (why do you refer to yourself in the third person in your second comment?) comments today:

    First paragraph: A young person with a heightened sense of mortality should be more inclined to agree with Nokes's argument that time spent reading bad books is time wasted, no? By citing your assumed age, Nokes was giving you the benefit of the doubt, an excuse for thinking no books worth banning (in his hyperbolic sense).

    Second paragraph: Nokes's post today was condescending. That doesn't make him wrong: have you read no book that you feel others shouldn't ever waste their time on?

    Third paragraph: if, to borrow Sturgeon's slogan, 90% of all books are crap, wouldn't we be better off having only the other 10% to read, discuss, rate? But almost all books will be forgotten -- the biggest culprit is simply time -- and yet there will always be bad books to which the good books can be compared, so why shouldn't Nokes have observed (using the occasion of Banned Books Week) that some some widely admired titles, fall, in his view, among that bottom 90%?

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  6. Lauren1:00 PM

    I do not recall claiming that employing a condescending tone is wrong. I merely commented on the fact that Nokes claimed his goal in writing the blog was not to patronize me, yet he most certainly did.

    Kate Marie,
    I did not mean to demean the brilliance of works like Paradise Lost or King Lear as works standing on their own.
    I simply believe that people must read works that are not as meaningful (meaningful being an abstract term because it is completely subjective and based on opinion) in order to appreciate those that hold more literary value, if you will.

    Brigand,
    On the contrary to your opinion on my heightened sense of mortality, it has actually made me believe that nothing is a waste of time. I do not regret reading any of the books I have ever read, even if I have absolutely despised them, because I think it a waste of energy to think that something could be defined as completely worthless. I learn something from everything, whether I want to or not.

    And I feel as though people are misinterpreting my entire arguement here. I am not advocating that every book anyone will ever pick up contains profound meaning. But I do believe that most works out there serve advantageous in some way to the reader, whether directly implied by the author or not.

    As a final thought, if there will always be bad books to which good books can be compared and Nokes' time is as precious as he claims, why would he spend time fighting against works that quite honestly must have some good qualities about them if they are so widely popularized.

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  7. Lauren:
    Nothing is a waste of time? Time spent reading junk is as well spent as time spent reading masterpieces? Is nothing good or bad? And how is acknowledging that you "despised" some books you've read less of a "waste of energy" than thinking them worthless?

    As for "learn[ing] something from everything", and even bad books being "advantageous in some way to the reader", well of course, but have you never, after reading a bad book, thought that it was bad in the same way that other books were bad? And if a friend asks you which of two books he should read, and you liked one more than the other, do you reply that it doesn't matter, because he'll learn equally from both?

    Turning to your last point: first, that a work is popular means that it has qualities that make it popular, not that any particular reader, like Nokes, need agree that those qualities are good. But why should Nokes spend time even to dismiss those bad books? Well, he is in the business of literature, after all, but wouldn't anyone who loves good books want to encourage others to read those books, which is the same thing as encouraging them not to read the bad books?

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  8. All these big words being bandied about make my little noodle ache. The one thing gleaned from this however is that Judy needs to LERN SUM HUMOR.

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  9. Lauren3:21 PM

    Reading, no matter what the content, is never a waste of my time. Of course things are good and bad. When did I say nothing was good or bad? And just because I despise certain books does not mean that I think they are worthless. Am I not allowed to not enjoy reading a book, but still get something out of it? I think not.

    I am not even going to argue with you on your second paragraph because I never said anything about recommending books or how I would go about doing that. Don't put words in my mouth please.

    As to your third point, in my original e-mail to Nokes, I stated that of course he was entitled to his opinions. And of course I would encourage him to promote books he deems good. Encouraging someone to read one book would be the same as discouraging them not to read that book. However, it would not be the same as encouraging them not to read another book.

    Bubu, humor is one of the most fantastic things in the world, along with sarcasm. I simply find it hard to use humor when talking to people who will not listen to what I have to say no matter how I put it.

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  10. I would respond to Lauren-Judy, but alas I am not "a professor of English" and thus am not "more than entitled to your opinions." High standards indeed for having opinions that disagree with Lauren-Judy.

    Besides, there is sufficient dialogue occuring without my contribution.

    And to Lauren,

    Regardless of your ire toward Professor Nokes comments, and how nonplussed I am by your initial letter to the good professor, you are a good and worthy defender of your ideas. It is rare to see thumos in the modern world, well at least without accompanying profanity, and I for one applaud the conversation.

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  11. I'm also not a professor, of English or of anything else, but...

    Lauren:
    I'd like to address your concern that people who will not listen to what I have to say no matter how I put it. So let's return to your initial e-mail. Your comments are in italics:

    Although as a professor of English you are more than entitled to your opinions, I find it unbelievable that you would support and blatantly promote the malicious and completely unreasonable act of banning and in your words, "burning" any piece of literature.
    You've already acknowledged that you didn't really think that Nokes genuinely meant that books should be banned or burned -- like him you were using hyperbole.

    I am surprised that a renowned professor of English, such as yourself, would fail to see the value in all pieces of literature.
    Nokes himself said that he doesn't agree with you that all literature has value. This issue may not be one on which Nokes and the commenters here agree with you, but I think they/we all understand that you believe this.

    The blanket statements you make about "saving humanity" from "junior high poetry" clearly stand only as the naive opinions of a concretely close minded individual.
    This follows from the previous point: Nokes (and many others) believe that there is such a thing as bad writing and would rather not read it. You agree that there is bad writing, but when I asked whether you would recommend a good book over a bad book, you said that I was putting words in your mouth.

    Before "burning" any more literary works in the public square, perhaps you might want to take a second and analyze the deeper messages of some of the authors and works on your list of "aesthetically objectionable books". You may find that although some works may not be the most aesthetically pleasing, they may have some excruciatingly meaningful content that you have simply overlooked.
    As Nokes wrote, he's read all the books that he listed, he's thought about them, and he's decided that he objects to their aesthetics: they are badly written, or contain muddled thinking, or both. Supposing he read them all again and carefully considered them all again and still found no "excruciatingly meaningful content" (what is that, by the way?) then what should he do? At what point could he fairly say that reading a particular book did him no good? On what basis should he say otherwise?

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  12. Lauren5:25 PM

    I am sorry, I assumed that the question "And if a friend asks you which of two books he should read, and you liked one more than the other, do you reply that it doesn't matter, because he'll learn equally from both?" was rhetorical and the answer that you were insinuating from the question were the words you put in my mouth. So to answer your question, no, I would not do that.

    Replying is much different than listening. Yes, I appreciate your replies to every little detail I have said. However, the point that I am trying to make that is not being listened to is that I don't think it appropriate to basically deem other people's works as worthless. I know just as well as everybody else that different people find different meanings in different works. That is part of what makes literature so great in the first place.

    And since you find such pleasure in making a mockery of my words, obviously my writing is just not good enough for you or this blog post, so maybe you should stop wasting your time on me. It is clear to me that no matter how many times I repeat my point (that I don't think it is appropriate to claim that works are worthless in a somwhat public setting) you will continue to mock me and consider me a simply a very verbose yet extremely unintelligent human being.

    Arguing with YOU is a waste of my time.

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  13. Lauren5:44 PM

    Also, I am a little confused as to why you are putting such emphasis on my wording of "professor of English" being "more than entitled to [his] own opinion". Professor Nokes is an English Professor, and I was not employing sarcasm when I stated that he is entitled to his opinons, as is everyone. Just to clear the air on that one.

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  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  15. Sorry about the deleted comment -- I goofed with the HTML, but it's corrected here.

    Replying is much different than listening.
    If the replies are reasonable and on topic, they probably indicate that your comments are being read (or "heard"). But not necessarily that the reader agrees with them.

    However, the point that I am trying to make that is not being listened to is that I don't think it appropriate to basically deem other people's works as worthless.
    I understand that you think so; I don't understand why you think so.

    I know just as well as everybody else that different people find different meanings in different works.
    That point has never been under debate in this discussion.

    That is part of what makes literature so great in the first place.
    It is wonderful to encounter other interpretations of literature, but I feel this is largely beside the point in this discussion.

    And since you find such pleasure in making a mockery of my words…
    Not at all: I have sincerely responded to all of the points you've raised; the closest I came to mockery was my query, in an aside, of your phrase "excruciatingly meaningful content", because it seems a peculiar choice of words to me.

    obviously my writing is just not good enough for you or this blog post, so maybe you should stop wasting your time on me.
    The quality of your writing is not at issue. I'm interested in the ideas under discussion.

    It is clear to me that no matter how many times I repeat my point (that I don't think it is appropriate to claim that works are worthless in a somwhat public setting)...
    You've stated that point, others have responded with counter-arguments, which in my opinion you haven't successfully rebutted.

    you will continue to mock me and consider me a simply a very verbose yet extremely unintelligent human being.
    Again: I never mocked you. I don't know you and wouldn't comment on your intelligence; I can only comment on your statements here (which aren't especially verbose).

    Arguing with YOU is a waste of my time.
    Are we arguing? I thought this was a serious discussion about whether it is appropriate to claim a book is not worth reading. As it happens, I am leading discussions on a similar subject over in the forum at TheOneRing.net (you're welcome to join in). The subject this week is negative criticism of Tolkien, by Edmund Wilson, Burton Raffel, Christine Brooke-Rose, Nick Otty, Jenny Turner and Richard Jenkyns, with close reading of their arguments. Wilson, for one, called The Lord of the Rings "balderdash" and "nonsense", which is not so far from calling a work "worthless". So please understand that I take your concerns seriously.

    P.S. The "professor of English" bit started with your e-mail to Nokes, where you wrote, "[A]s a professor of English you are more than entitled to your opinions". Christian Johnson jokingly chose to read your comment as a suggestion that people who are not professors of English are not "more than entitled" to their opinions. I picked up on his joke merely as a segue into my subsequent post.

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  16. Lauren, your initial e-mail to Scott suggests that you believe there's a moral dimension to being a professor of literature, and that it's "unbelievable" not to see every book as a sacred object. Many of my own students hold the same assumptions about professors' roles in the Cult of the Book. It's an awfully idealistic belief, this notion of every book as a fetish object with transcendent value, but it's a fallacious one.

    In fact, the job of a professor of literature is to critique and to discriminate. What you saw as Scott's "closed-mindedness" is instead a literature professor's mature understanding that we don't have an infinite amount of time at our disposal. It's an agonizing realization: Every time a professor chooses to put a particular book on his syllabus, he's choosing not to include half a dozen others. Every time you choose to read or buy a book, you're choosing to ignore countless others, perhaps for all time. Mature readers of literature--heck, mature practitioners of any subject--understand that this is the trade-off necessitated by life: Ars longa, vita brevis. You may disagree with Scott's choices, but it's surprising to see you criticize him for making those choices in the first place.

    I think you're also conflating questions about literary value with other judgments. The guy who writes a 600-page autobiographical novel in the voice of a six-year-old narrator lamenting the death of his pet turtle, Tippy, has probably found the process therapeutic, even cathartic--but what is that to the rest of us? The confessional poem that prompts a depressed student's teacher to find him counseling has performed a wonderful, life-saving service--but would you put that poem on a syllabus and ask students to pay $130 per credit to study it? That poem, having served its laudable purpose, will pass into oblivion, as everything we write is bound to do. Museums are full of buttons, bottles, and bits of cloth that were once dear to someone--but if we decide we're in the business of aesthetics, we can't devalue our judgments out of deference to the sentimentality of others. You can, I suppose, justify the value of nearly any book, but you can't always justify its value as literature.

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  17. As a professor of history, I have received quite an education from the problem of surplus books.

    Some of those surplus books are old ones that I will never have reason to read again. Some of these I now consider so mistaken or shallow I hesitate to even give them away to students.

    Worse are the publisher's promotional copies. A few are excellent and I even adopt them. Most are unabashedly commercial products -- survey textbooks and writing guides -- that I have no respect for. How many doorstops can one use? (No more than one per door.)

    Another question, mostly from reading political blogs. How much time should one spend attacking or even dismissing the bad and how much pointing out the good. I often feel that valuable as criticism of the bad and the wrong can be, people get too wrapped up in showing how right they themselves are.

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  18. M. Fellows11:46 PM

    Lauren, arguing with those that don't agree with you is a waste of time? If criticism irks you so, then I would suggest that the next time you feel the need to express your views publicly you rethink things. No one has attacked you personally and the notion you seem to imply, that you are somehow a victim, is completely ridiculous. To put it more colloquially, if you can’t handle the heat, stay out of the kitchen.

    Moving on to Steve Muhlberger’s last question. When evaluating literature we must be completely honest, yet it has been my experience that it is far better to focus on what we find beautiful, and thereby expand the literary joy of others, than to focus on what we find unpleasing, potentially hindering someone’s opportunity for appreciation. Positive criticism reveals far more about art than negative (not that this does not have its place).

    I understand that many will disagree with my views. Yet when criticism does arise I will take it as it was meant and will try not to become deeply offended. Perhaps Lauren should try this as well?

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  19. I come from Paraguay. You not say Paraguay weak. Paraguay is game to you?! Howbout I take copy of Beowulf, dog-ear pages, crack the spine, and smash it!!

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  20. Since the raging debate is over, I'd just like to add that I find it utterly charming that you didn't know how to pronounce "hyperbole" until university, Dr. Nokes

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  21. To further charm you, I thought that the word "epitome," which I had been reading as if it rhymed with "home," was two different words with similar meanings. I knew what "epitome" meant when I saw it written, and I knew what /epitome/ meant when I heard it pronounced, but I never made the connection between the two.

    I've never been the brightest bulb...

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  22. Anonymous4:32 PM

    a very enjoyable article..keep up the good work.
    Ivana

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  23. I've just come across this blog via a link to another post, and decided to read some more.

    This one is a little disturbing. Certainly Lauren did not express herself in her initial e-mail as well as she could have, but her intent is clear and she has a valid point to make. But instead of acknowledging it and weighing it against their own views, the respondents either willfully ignore her point or give a remarkably good impression of doing so, and then circle around her and make cheap pot-shots. No wonder she's getting so frustrated. Shame, shame.

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  24. I'm not eager for this debate to begin again, but DB: Lauren's central point, which she stated several times in the discussion, was perhaps most clearly made when she wrote:

    "However, the point that I am trying to make that is not being listened to is that I don't think it appropriate to basically deem other people's works as worthless."

    And her two basic arguments in support of this assertion were first:

    "[W]ithout the less meaningful works, the brilliant works would not be nearly as brilliant";

    and second:

    "I learn something from everything, whether I want to or not".

    There was sarcasm in some of the responses to Lauren, but despite the fact that her initial e-mail referred to Nokes's earlier comments as "the naive opinions of a concretely close minded individual", those claims were not "willfully ignore[d]", as you say, but were repeatedly and carefully answered by several people, beginning with Nokes's post and perhaps most helpfully in the response by Jeff.

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