Books and Code · A Miscellany

A Beautiful, Pointer Hell: Tender Buttons, by Gertrude Stein (A Review)


I can’t blame anyone for hating this book and its pretension. Stein was down with the whole “meta” hipster, overly self-aware, pseudo-intellectual, ironically un-ironic mentality way before it was cool. Perhaps it is even fair to describe this book and the sort of art it represents as dead-end, navel-gazing, mental masturbation. 99% of this kind of thing is utter garbage and not worth your time. Tender Buttons is that other 1%.

Stein treads the line between sense and nonsense so delicately here that an earnest close reading gives you the vague sense that the meaning is just out of reach and if only your arm was a fraction longer you could get a grasp onto something tangible. Like a weak swimmer caught up by flood waters, you struggle to grab onto mossy rocks or slimy roots. Your leg smashes against something solid underwater, but you can’t see what. Gasping for air you are as likely as not to get a mouthful of water. A bloated indistinct carcass floats by, followed by what is likely a human turd. Eventually this feeling ends because either you read the last page or you’ve given up on the assumption that meaning exists in this book and stopped reading.

As a computer programmer, the best way I can describe this book is as what we call “pointer hell.” This is when a computer program’s collection of memory and pointers into that memory get all jumbled up and whatnot. Things get confusing fast, then your computer crashes.

This is what Stein is doing with language. You see, words are merely pointers to things, not the things themselves. And sometimes, words are pointers to other words which are pointers to things. And so on. Stein drains words of their typical meanings and associations, reassigns them according to her whims (some detectable, some not), and meditates on the resulting “arrangement in a system to pointing.”

I get whiffs of commentary on sex, societal norms, and the patriarchy herein, helped along no doubt by my existing knowledge of Stein’s biography, but the overarching theme of Tender Buttons is the meaning of reference itself and how one can go about speaking of the nature of reference using the tools of reference. “[T]ranslate more than translate the authority, show the choice.”

Read this book at Project Gutenberg. See original page scans of the first edition at If you’re looking for a physical copy, I recommend the Dover Publications edition.

In a follow-up post, I will discuss the first poem in this collection, “A Carafe, that is a Blind Glass.”