From the cover of the Spring 2015 issue of The Normal School.
Like many gifted people, connoisseurs are often bad at explaining what they do. At the turn of the last century, Bernard Berenson was the most influential and successful connoisseur of Italian Renaissance art. With a superhuman visual memory, an old-fashioned belief in beauty for its own sake, and rapacious personal charm, this son of working-class Jewish immigrants climbed to the top of robber-baron society. Yet Berenson considered himself a failure as an art theorist, and he went out of his way to sully his hands with shady business deals, blurring the line between worldly success and self-abasement. This is the story Rachel Cohen tells in her engrossing capsule biography Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, a sympathetic portrait of a self-seeking but passionate lover of art. —Lorin Stein
I’ve been exploring Periscope, a new app in which users live stream video and interact with their audience in real time. Its uses are variously creepy (“If I get 300 viewers, my wife takes her tits out”), frivolous (“Driving thru the car wash, check it!!”), and fascinating (“Watch me feed my ten-foot python”)—but at its best it seems to bring a new intimacy to social media. “The Future of Loneliness,” Olivia Laing’s new essay in the Guardian, speaks to the fragility of that intimacy, and asks what networked life is doing to our ability to connect. I know: it’s familiar territory. But Laing avoids both the alarmism and Pollyannaism that so often mark essays about technology. She identifies the unique double-bind of life online, which affords us unprecedented control over our image while making us ever more vulnerable. “We aren’t as solid as we once thought,” she writes. “We are embodied but we are also networks, living on inside machines and in other people’s heads; memories and data streams. We are being watched and we do not have control. We long for contact and it makes us afraid. But as long as we are still capable of feeling and expressing vulnerability, intimacy stands a chance.” —Dan Piepenbring
It would be hard for any book-lover to imagine a more idyllic scene: thirty-two thousand books housed among a slew of renovated buildings on an 1,800-acre ranch in the foothills of Mount Silverheels. Lucky for us, it’s a scene that’s soon to become a reality. Ann Martin and Jeff Lee are the two Denver-based booksellers behind the Rocky Mountain Land Library, an immensely ambitious project some twenty years in the making. The duo was profiled this week in the New York Times after having found a home, in 2013, for their ever-growing Western-themed collection. As far as this reader is concerned, the only thing that might sweeten the deal would be a Paris Review residency ... —Stephen Andrew Hiltner
Having finally recovered from AWP, I’m reading all the great lit mags I picked up there, one of which, The Normal School, is my second favorite of all time. (You can guess which comes first.) The latest issue’s first essay, “Pig, Sea,” by Timothy Denevi, begins on the shore of Galilee, where we promptly witness more than two thousand pigs—“enormous and low, the light shinning in a pink translucence through their ears”—dive from a cliff into the freshwater lake after being possessed by demons only recently exorcised from a local madman. Waterlogged swine corpses aside, the new issue also contains “Marriage in the Movies,” an essay by Phillip Lopate, who explains why he wasn’t convinced by the marriage in Gone Girl by comparing it with more than twenty other marriages in film; and two poems by the late poet laureate Philip Levine, a longtime friend of the magazine. —Jeffery Gleaves
A cat might be “just a cat,” as “Life of Cats” curator Miwako Tezuka quips—but her new exhibition of cat-related ukiyo-e (Japanese wood-block paintings) at the Japan Society in Midtown will have you thinking otherwise. Long before Hello Kitty and cute cat clips went viral on YouTube, cats were already substantial players in the Japanese daily routine. They infiltrated every area of life, assuming diverse roles and purposes, appearing everywhere from the patterns of warriors’ kimonos to theatrical masks. There are anthropomorphized cat monsters and, yes, the lucky beckoning cat, Maneki-neko, found in Japanese restaurants around the world. With its colorful paintings, “Life of Cats” provides an accessible entry point, encouraging visitors to investigate the oddities of Japanese culture through the eyes of their most enduring, discreet witnesses. —Charlotte Groult