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On the Shelf

The Commuter’s Lament Goes On, and Other News

January 29, 2016 | by

From “A Commuter’s Lament.”

  • When the book and even the e-book have exhausted their charms, turn instead to the blook, an ersatz kind of book that offers many of the same bookish qualities without all that fatiguing text. Mindell Dubansky, the preservation librarian at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has about six hundred blooks, “made from stone, wax, straw, wood, soap, plastic, glass and other materials … There is, for example, a 1950s intruder alarm called the Informer, which was activated by a sensor behind two rather noticeable holes cut in the spine … an album of early 19th-century Grand Tour souvenir medallions and a tastefully bound women’s vanity set labeled, a bit perplexingly, Vol. XVII.”
  • The past few years have seen booksellers and publishers embracing guerrilla marketing tactics—spreading the gospel of literature on subway cars, vending machines, and Chipotle bags, among others. But is the outcome a more literate culture or just more advertising? “Literature has what’s referred to in the marketing business as ‘high stopping power,’ meaning it’s able to effectively capture people’s attention … While projects like Coffee Sleeve Conversation, Ticket Books, and Poems While You Wait have idealistic intentions, they reflect literature’s power as a marketing tool, even when it comes to products you wouldn’t find in a bookstore … Marketers have learned that by pairing their products with art and literature, customers tend to see them in a better light, a tactic called priming.”
  • Relatedly: Of all the public poems New Yorkers have seen over the years, Norman B. Colp’s “Commuter’s Lament” remains the bleakest. Installed in the Times Square subway station, it asks, “Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home. / Do it again.” The poem has been up since 1991; it’s based on “the Burma-Shave roadside ad campaigns plastered across the country for some forty years. Starting in the 1920s, the brushless shaving cream brand started advertising with signs strung along American highways.”
  • Robert Greene was one of the first people to refer to Shakespeare, in writing, as a playwright. As Ed Simon tells us, though, the reference was far from flattering: “Greene’s chief target was ‘an upstart Crow,’ who ‘supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you’ … simply a ‘Johannes factotum,’ that is, a ‘Johnny Do-It-All’ … He has appropriated the ‘mighty-line’ of Marlowe’s unrhymed iambic pentameter with blustery confidence (though he is a mere technician). He has a ‘tiger’s heart, wrapped in a player’s hyde,’ unable to fully escape the stigma of first playing on the stage before he would write for it.”
  • You heard it here first—or, well, okay, second: the next volume of Knausgaard’s My Struggle may or may not feature a scene in which our hero drunkenly vomits in Björk’s toilet. I won’t offer further spoilers except to say that the phrase “spewed up a magnificent yellow and orange cascade” comes into play.