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On the Shelf

Paper—It’s Not Just for Writing! And Other News

February 2, 2016 | by

Twentieth-century lithography by the Danish designer Axel Salto. Image: British Library, via Hyperallergic

  • In which Elif Batuman, visiting Turkey, puts on a head scarf and begins to rethink some things: “What if I really did it? What if I wore a scarf not as a disguise but somehow for real? I was thirty-four, and I’d been having a lot of doubts about the direction my life was taking … Now a glimmer appeared before me of a totally different way of being than any I had imagined, a life with clear rules and duties that you followed, in exchange for which you were respected and honored and safe. You had children—not maybe but definitely. You didn’t have to worry that your social value was irrevocably tied to your sexual value. You had less freedom, true. But what was so great about freedom? … Travelling alone, especially as a woman, especially in a patriarchal culture, can be really stressful. It can make you question the most basic priorities around which your life is arranged. Like: Why do I have a job that makes me travel alone? For literature? What’s literature?”
  • Infinite Jest turned twenty yesterday, and Tom Bissell has given it an astute new appraisal: “In interviews, Wallace was explicit that art must have a higher purpose than mere entertainment: ‘Fiction’s about what it is to be a … human being.’ And here, really, is the enigma of David Foster Wallace’s work generally and Infinite Jest specifically: an endlessly, compulsively entertaining book that stingily withholds from readers the core pleasures of mainstream novelistic entertainment, among them a graspable central narrative line, identifiable movement through time and any resolution of its quadrumvirate plotlines … Made-up words, hot-wired words, words found only in the footnotes of medical dictionaries, words usable only within the context of classical rhetoric, home-chemistry words, mathematician words, philosopher words—Wallace spelunked the O.E.D. and fearlessly neologized, nouning verbs, verbing nouns, creating less a novel of language than a brand-new lexicographic reality.”
  • In the interest of evenhandedness, please note that the novel has earned, on Amazon, a large share of one-star reviews, and these disappointed readers deserve their say, too. “If you’re trying to make sense of a bunch of mumbo-jumbo then by all means place this one in your shopping basket,” one happy customer wrote. “He is a literary bully,” another reader said. And: “Didn’t know it was 1000 pages. Too hard to hold. Bought one for my son and he felt the same way.”
  • Paper: it’s good for writing, yes, but—did you ever think of this?—it’s also good for decorating. The new Anthology of Decorated Papers compiles some fine examples of all the things people have done with paper besides writing on it, which is, when push comes to shove, boring. “Much of the collection of over 3,500 papers focuses on book endpapers and other publishing ephemera. There are also wrappers, backs of playing cards, currency paper, wallpaper, musical instrument covers, and other examples of the medium, mostly dating from the sixteenth to twentieth centuries.”
  • I like to say that magazines are dying because it makes me look smart and chicly pessimistic. And I have to imagine my forebears felt the same way. People have been saying that magazines are dead more or less since they were born. Evan Ratliff writes, “We are not the first generation to witness the death of great magazine writing. That bell began tolling, some would say, as far back as 1911, when a run of unprofitability forced Samuel S. McClure to sell off McClure’s—founded in 1893 … When Vanity Fair came (in 1913) and went (in 1936), it was only a hint of the carnage that the era of radio would bring. We lost the titanic trio of Scribner’sForum, and Liberty—you remember them, of course—not to mention Living Age. When the Delineator went from over two million subscribers in 1929 to suddenly ceasing publication in 1937, the writing was on the wall.”


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