The Daily

This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Slugs, Sluggers, Suet Pastry

August 1, 2014 | by

Russell_Lee_Linotype_operators_of_the_Chicago_Defender_1941

Linotype operators of the Chicago Defender, 1941. Photo: Russell Lee

Have you ever been reading, say, a George Eliot novel and suddenly wondered how the dry cleaning worked? Or what everyone used for toothpaste? Or how the farm women managed to do all that mowing in corsets? If this is the sort of question that interests you, prepare to be engrossed by Ruth Goodman’s How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life. No doubt some material will be familiar to viewers of Goodman’s BBC series, Victorian Farm, Edwardian Farm, and Victorian Pharmacy; having spent so much time costumed, cooking, and laboring for the camera, Goodman is terrific at describing the feel of heavy worsteds, or the craving for suet pastry, or the manual skills that she admires in Victorian men and, especially, women. Her admiration is contagious and, often, unexpectedly moving, as we see workmen tending to their gardens or little girls learning, from a magazine, how to sew by “dressing dolly.” This is cultural history even a kid could understand, and that (I suspect) even a scholar might enjoy. —Lorin Stein

Roger Angell received the baseball Hall of Fame’s award for writers last week, and I’ve been reading through Game Time, one of his many Baseball Companions. Angell had a way of getting players, especially pitchers, to talk about their craft with detail and clarity—they’re all philosophers of the game, as well as practitioners. In “Easy Lessons,” a piece about spring training in 1984, Angell talks with some older players who were winding up their careers. A thirty-seven-year-old Reggie Jackson says, “I often think about coming to the end. It’s fairly real—it’s a possibility—and I can’t say it doesn’t bother me.” Tom Seaver and Don Sutton talk pitching mechanics with a courtly, conversational style that is just like Angell’s. With the Mets permanently stuck at five games under .500, it’s a relief to revisit seasons past. —Robyn Creswell

My grandfather worked as a linotype operator, carefully managing sorts and slugs (tiny letters and spaces cast from molten lead) to bring words into type. By definition, this meant he was a comprehensive and intimate reader of countless newspapers, books, and pamphlets over the course of his career, which saw the height of mechanical typesetting and its subsequent decline at the hands of electronic automation. What began as a highly sought-after union job—one that allowed him to travel widely, working for presses in the U.S., Ireland, and Australia—had essentially dried up by the time he retired at fifty-five. So I was heartened when I saw the meticulous shots of lead-letter type and mechanical printing presses and pigs (blocks of lead from which new type is molded) in a PBS feature on Arion Press, one of the last presses dedicated to making books by hand, with hot metal typesetting on handmade pages and hand-sewn bindings. Arion is currently working on a special edition of Leaves of Grass—Whitman, a literary champion of the common man working with his hands, seems a fitting choice for this project. At Arion, you can see some of the last hand-typesetters on Earth, dedicated to an art that is all but lost. There are no big victories to be had against digitization, against the steady decline of books as treasured objects, as things to hold rather than screen sequences to be “46 percent done” with. There are only small, futile acts of defiance, and tiny letters made of lead. The full segment, which includes an interview with former poet laureate Robert Hass, airs tonight on PBS. —Chantal McStay

Though I already quoted it at length in this morning’s news roundup, I can’t endorse Rebecca Mead’s latest column for The New Yorker, “The Scourge of ‘Relatability,’ ” enough. The word relatable was once the province, Mead explains, of daytime talk-show hostesses—the word conjures manicured executives passing glossy focus-group results around a glass conference-room table. (“Will it play in Peoria?” Hollywood bigwigs used to ask, which amounts to the same concern.) But art and literature aren’t, or shouldn’t be, in the thrall of commerce. Why, then, do so many readers, including nominally intelligent ones like Ira Glass, insist that relatability is a valuable metric? “To demand that a work be ‘relatable’ expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer,” Mead writes; “the notion implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.” Is this all we want from our artists—affable, familiar depictions of everything we already recognize? If you’re a reader who treasures relatability above all else, I can’t relate to you at all. This may mean I should read a novel about you, but let’s continue not to be friends. —Dan Piepenbring

Decades after its publication, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake continues to mystify writers and readers. When I came across the collection my sophomore year in college, everything about it intrigued me: the name, Pancake’s suicide, the Pulitzer nomination many years after his death. The stories themselves were raw, haunting, and beautiful—as Kurt Vonnegut wrote to John Casey, “What I suspect is that it hurt too much, was no fun at all to be that good. You and I will never know.” In the Oxford American, Marion Field recalls her parents’ relationship with Pancake during his graduate studies at the University of Virginia. He was a conflicted outsider whom everyone respected, a manipulator who wanted to be understood. “He kept ghosts for company and couldn’t explain to the khaki-wearing set what haunted him. It was more than the fiction alone and more than the grief of his real life.” —Justin Alvarez

Manfeels Park,” a feminist web-comic, pairs scenes from Jane Austen novels with a slew of sexist comments from various quarters of the Internet, usually from “hurt and confused men with Very Important Things to Explain.” This week’s edition, “Austen Characters Against Feminism,” satirizes the now infamous Women Against Feminism tumblr. My favorite strip highlights Lizzy Bennet herself—Austen’s most beloved heroine wasn’t having your chauvinism then, and she isn’t having it now. “I don’t need feminism because he loves me against his will, against his reason, and even against his character,” she says. “No, wait … ” —Yasmin Roshanian

1 COMMENT

1 Comments

  1. scoutdil@aol.com | August 4, 2014 at 10:17 am

    Pancake’s collection might have been submitted for a Pulitzer Prize (any person may submit a book) but nominees are chosen by the Pulitzer group. His book was not nominated. The winner and nominees are listed on the Pulitzer site. His collection, which I treasure, has been referred to as a nominee so many times it is unlikely the error will ever cease to circulate.

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