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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Don B., B. Dole, /u/backgrinder

March 7, 2014 | by

The_Archers_by_Bryson_Burroughs_-_Renwick_Gallery_-_DSC08383

“How hard was it to supply archers arrows in ancient battles?” Bryson Burroughs, The Archers, 1917.

Sozzled novelists (aka, lit lit) seems to be the thing to write about lately, but it’s more fun to read great writers making fun of great writers drinking a lot. In one of his short pieces originally written for The New Yorker’s Notes and Comment section (more quotidian than Talk of the Town and funnier than Shouts and Murmurs, it’s a section I wish they’d revive), Donald Barthelme describes having received a questionnaire from Writer’s Digest that inquired about his drinking habits. Asked if he’s a light, medium, heavy, or “other” drinker, Barthelme says medium: “Light is sissy and Heavy doesn’t go down so well with Deans, Loan Officers and Publishers, and who in the world would want to be Other?” Only a few days before reading this gem, I’d discovered Niccolò Tucci’s essay on drunkenness in issue 19 of The Paris Review. Tucci starts by recounting a pop-sci study on the hangover. We’d do well to heed one of its findings: “Alcohol itself is perfectly harmless. It cannot be blamed for anything … not even for death. What kills you is malnutrition. Drinkers forget to eat. If they ate more, they could drink more. In fact, obesity kills more people than alcohol. People should eat much less.” —Nicole Rudick

Steve Jobs famously quipped, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them”—which is often how I feel about the content I find on Reddit, the Internet’s ultimate rabbit hole. Mastering the abbreviated jargon can take some time, but it’s well worth the plunge; I tumbled in, head first, after The Paris Review’s recent AMA. Take, for instance, /u/backgrinder’s response to the very reasonable, if incalculably arcane, question, “How hard was it to supply arrows to archers in ancient battles?” (TL;DR: Surprisingly hard.) —Stephen Andrew Hiltner

I have Bob Dole’s voice in my head, and it’s Richard Ben Cramer’s fault. “Dole’s voice was made for the empty distance and mean wind of the prairie,” Cramer writes in What It Takes: The Way to the White House, his thousand-page opus on presidential politics, published in 1992. Cramer died last year, and I’ve been meaning to delve into this book ever since—for once, the promise of the flap copy is no exaggeration. “An American Iliad in the guise of contemporary political reportage, What It Takes penetrates the mystery at the heart of all presidential campaigns: How do presumably ordinary people acquire that mixture of ambition, stamina, and pure shamelessness that makes a true candidate?” In writing about it here, I’ve bitten off more than I can chew; there’s no way to convey how exhaustively researched it is, how lovingly chronicled, how immaculately well-written. All I can say is that it drove me not just to feel a deep kinship with someone like Bob Dole but to watch the entirety of a Dole debate from the eighties, and to enjoy it. Publishers always like to claim that a given work of nonfiction “reads like a novel,” and it’s so seldom true—but What It Takes has the scope, pace, style, and psychological acuity of the best fiction. —Dan Piepenbring

Sorting through the contents of my childhood bedroom has yielded some unexpected surprises. (Pro tip: do NOT leave your chemistry set unattended for twenty years.) One of the most delightful unearthings was Joan Aiken’s The Last Slice of Rainbow, a book of children’s stories that, as I flipped through it, I realized I could almost recite by heart. Here was the girl with the screaming hair, the terrifying tooth fairy, the spider in the bath (spoiler alert: it’s enchanted!), the mischievous sea kelpie, and of course, the titular slice of rainbow that cannot be kept for long. Even if you’ve long since moved out of your parents’ house—though no judgment if you’ve since moved back in—this collection will return you to the days of rock candy and model rockets. —Rachel Abramowitz

Andrew O’Hagan’s piece on Julian Assange, in the March 6 edition of the London Review of Books, tells the story of the failed autobiography that Assange sought to write, and for which publishers Knopf and Canongate collectively paid a $2.5 million advance. O’Hagan was to be the ghostwriter of the book, and he spent a year or so in the inner fold of WikiLeaks in Norfolk, England, around 2011. The piece is also a deft portrait of Assange himself, and he comes off looking a bit like the deranged leader of a badly organized anarchist cult. O’Hagan suggests that Assange is motivated “not by high principles” as he constantly claims, “but by a deep sentimental wound”; all his ideas about justice, freedom, and the individual and the state seem mutable and at times even convenient. Inquiring readers will find out that Assange eats with his hands and constantly thinks he is about to be assassinated. —Anna Heyward

Banksy who? In the seventies, long before “street art” became a thing, artists Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel were altering billboards for the simple pleasure of mocking advertising. From nonsensical “oranges on fire” to commentary on the current political situation, the project allowed the pair, under the name Clatworthy Colourvues, to reach an audience they would never find behind the walls of a museum. If you are in San Francisco, check out the “We Make You Us” exhibition at the Stephen Wirtz Gallery. It’s a long way from the commissioned High Line Billboard artwork of today. —Justin Alvarez

 

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  1. Paul Cameron Opperman | March 10, 2014 at 2:17 pm

    RE: Banksy – Detournement literally diversion or rerouting but nuances closer to hijacking was a Situationist favorite in the ’50’s – Guy Debord describes it as attacking art by plagiarizing and stealing pre-existing aesthetic elements to make a new work. There was a French gov. info poster that read: Alcohol kills slowly. The poster had not been up 24 hours when, on Debord’s instructions, a raiding party from the Chez Moineau scrawled over it _ We don’t give a F**K, we’ve got the time. And then again there’s Jamie Reid.

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