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Kingsley Amis’s James Bond Novel

April 16, 2014 | by

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Happy birthday to Kingsley Amis, who would be ninety-two today. In his 1975 Art of Fiction interview, Amis says,

I think it’s very important to read widely and in a wide spectrum of merit and ambition on the part of the writer. And ever since, I’ve always been interested in these less respectable forms of writing—the adventure story, the thriller, science fiction, and so on—and this is why I’ve produced one or two examples myself. I read somewhere recently somebody saying, “When I want to read a book, I write one.” I think that’s very good. It puts its finger on it, because there are never enough books of the kind one likes: one adds to the stock for one’s own entertainment.

Amis was always a staunch defender of genre fiction—and one of the “examples” he speaks of having produced is Colonel Sun, a James Bond novel he published in 1968 under the pseudonym Robert Markham. Read More »

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The Zebra

April 16, 2014 | by

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Nathan Pyle has recently written an illustrated handbook for living in—or, perhaps even more crucially, visiting—New York. NYC (Basic Tips and Etiquette) contains such valuable tips as

  • Beware of the empty train car, it’s empty for a reason.
  • Bring cash to group dining events.
  • 12% chance you have spotted a celebrity. 88% chance you have spotted someone who vaguely resembles a celebrity. 100% chance you are awkwardly staring at someone while you argue about it.

These will, I think we agree, apply to any good-sized city.

Yesterday, two of Pyle’s tips were very much on my mind. The weather had, abruptly, turned brutal: cold, with high winds and lashing rain. This weather! This weather! This weather! everyone chanted. Pyle is absolutely right in his assertion that “one $20 umbrella will outlast four $5 umbrellas.” I went for my hardiest number, which is, incidentally, patterned with cheerful zebras on a red ground. Read More »

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Books

The Missing Borges

April 16, 2014 | by

Seven years ago, a stolen first edition of Borges’s early poems was returned to Argentina’s National Library. But was it the right copy?

Jorge_Luis_Borges_1963 Alicia D'Amico

Jorge Luis Borges in 1963. Photo: Alicia D'Amico

The world of rare books and manuscripts is full of intrigues, betrayals, and frauds. Alberto Casares has lived in this world for decades; as the president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Buenos Aires, he’s an expert on the subject. He’s got the physique du rôl: a gray, messy beard; a soft body; an intense and wary look.

A few months ago, Casares was offered a seventeenth-century original edition of Don Quixote for one million euros. He recognized it as a well-known forgery from the nineteenth century, worth no more than €200,000. The seller took it away, determined to find a more unsuspecting client, and Casares was left alone with the melancholy of having lost something that was never his to own.

What would some people give to own it? Casares told me, “Bibliographers are willing to commit crimes to follow their mad desire to own things.” He was thinking of a former client, Daniel Pastore, a collector of rare books and first editions, heir to a pharmaceutical fortune and owner of Imago Mundi, Buenos Aires’s most elegant antiquarian bookshop, which closed a few years ago after a succession of international scandals involving Pastore.

Casares was annoyed and fascinated by Pastore, who was eighteen the first time he walked into Casare’s bookshop. He was handsome, rich, likeable, and learned—a good client. But he was also pedantic; he claimed to know more about rare books than Casares. Sometimes he did. But not when it came to Jorge Luis Borges. Read More »

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On the Shelf

Damn the Kafkaesque, and Other News

April 16, 2014 | by

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Franz Kafka: he’s more than just an adjective.

  • The Pulitzer Prize is a human enterprise. Editors, past winners and a few Columbia University pooh-bahs comprise the board that awards them. Like all such collections of human beings, Pulitzer Boards are capable of brilliant good sense, and egregious errors.”
  • Cynthia Ozick’s stirring defense of Kafka, the man: “Whoever utters ‘Kafkaesque’ has neither fathomed nor intuited nor felt the impress of Kafka’s devisings. If there is one imperative that ought to accompany any biographical or critical approach, it is that Kafka is not to be mistaken for the Kafkaesque.”
  • Was the first-ever emoticon in a seventeenth-century poem? Maybe! But probably not.
  • Thoughts on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Mazda Miata: “I was frequently stopped while driving. Fellow Miata owners waved enthusiastically. Clubs were formed. People constantly made offers to buy my car. Miata is a car that’s worn like a jacket. The lithe driving dynamic is a second skin.”
  • But the Miata was never endorsed by a man who’s walked on the moon: the only car to claim that honor is the Volkswagen Beetle, which found an unlikely advocate in Buzz Aldrin.

 

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Look

Happy Motoring

April 15, 2014 | by

Rand McNally published its first road atlas on April 15, 1924. It was called—in a touching testament to the marketing of yore—the Rand McNally Auto Chum. Many hours of intrepid googling have failed to yield a photo of the Chum, but I did find a retrospective of atlas covers, and this commemorative press release, which catalogs some of the decidedly unchummy features of the 1924 atlas. A few of the things it didn’t do:

  • Did not identify roads by number; instead roads were listed by their names, such as Roosevelt Highway. In fact, the atlas depicted zero miles of interstate, as those roads did not yet exist.
  • Did not include an index for cities, or other places. If a driver didn’t know where a town was located, he or she would have to page through the atlas to find it.
  • Did not appear in full color. The 1924 atlas was printed in only two colors, dark blue and red. The first full-color edition was printed in 1960.

One can only imagine the faces of so many vexed motorists as they tossed their unindexed, two-tone Chums out the windows of their stranded Model Ts.

As with so many reference texts, the road atlas has fallen into desuetude, for reasons obvious to anyone with an Internet connection. In its coverage of the Rand McNally anniversary, Yahoo! News already presumes that its readership knows nothing of atlases past; their tone is that of a nostalgic grandfather. “Before there were smart phones and Google Maps,” the story begins, “people relied on road atlases and paper maps stored in their glove boxes.” Gee!

We’ve also lost the complimentary road maps once offered by gasoline companies, a few of which are pictured above. (Look closely for the title of a Flannery O’Connor short story in one of them.) It was the gas giants who helped to underwrite the cost of the first atlases: better maps meant more people on the road, and more people on the road meant more gasoline sold.

The Yale University Library hosts an old but serviceable guide to early road maps, and its text, by Douglas A. Yorke Jr. and John Margolies, provides an excellent précis on the importance of oil-company cartography, which, with its flashy art and sloganeering, amounts to a kind of petrol propaganda:

The oil-company road map became the primary medium through which Americans found their way on the ever-growing network of the national roads and highways … By the twenties, most major oil companies had some form of promotional map program. The covers often featured a man and a woman discovering the joy of driving through the countryside, enjoying the freedom and mobility the automobile offered … The 1927 Standard Oil map of Ohio compares the motorist to the pioneer in the Conestoga wagon, blazing trails and discovering new lands. The Kentucky Standard Oil map of the same year has a three panel spread, depicting a motorist using a free map to plan their descent into the rolling valley below. Oil companies were encouraging the automobile owner to travel and explore the country—using their gasoline.

 

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Hate-Reading

April 15, 2014 | by

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Frederic Leighton, Study at a Reading Desk‎, 1877

I am a rereader by nature. Like most rereaders, I have a few beloved favorites—Sisters By a River, or We Think the World of You, or A Girl in Winter—that bring me comfort as well as pleasure. Then there are a few books that I know just as well as these, and revisit just as often, but which I loathe. The writing is not bad; that would make the reading a chore instead of a sick pleasure. Usually I despise the narrator in some way—for being out of touch or oblivious or solipsistic. I particularly hate certain culinary memoirs and novels with leaden dialogue. The irritated satisfaction these books give me is akin to the irresistible pain of worrying a sore tooth. 

I never hate-read work by someone I actually know. A few times I have gone on to learn too much about the writer of one of these books, and the pleasure went away. The wealth of available information may feed some kinds of animus; mine depend on the hermetic isolation of my own obscure prejudices. They must not be humanized. Read More »

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