June 23, 2015 | by Jason Novak
See more of Jason’s work in our new Summer issue.
When I was a kid, I came across Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary and found it to be a revelation of cynicism—even somehow liberating in its bleak honesty.
Bierce’s writing has fallen out of fashion over the past century. His specialty was the dispensation of devastating aphoristic truths. If I had to name a single literary antecedent, it might be Blaise Pascal. While Pascal was content to note the pain and weakness of humankind, though, Bierce injected his epigrams with a dose of fanciful weirdness. Take this one, for example, which almost reads like stage directions for a vaudeville routine:
Meeting Merit on a street-crossing, Success stood still. Merit stepped off into the mud and went round him, bowing his apologies, which Success had the grace to accept.
Most of Bierce’s works are so direct and evocative that illustrations might only cloud their effect. But these unusual exchanges between virtues personified—many of which are collected in A Cynic Looks at Life (1912)—cried out to me as mini-comics. I hope this form brings out their idiosyncrasies. Read More »
October 25, 2013 | by Jason Novak
March 29, 2013 | by Jason Novak
January 23, 2013 | by Jason Novak
I was at Moe’s Books in Berkeley looking for material on seventeenth-century shape poems with my not-yet-two-year-old daughter when a wizened man with mutton chops spotted me reshelving the books she was piling in the corner.
“What are you looking for?” he asked.
I quickly learned that he’d spent his entire scholarly life immersed in the study of shape poems. Moe’s must be rich with encounters like this; it’s a four-story bookstore just three blocks from the University of California, Berkeley campus.
He told me about a contemporaneous vogue for something called emblem books. Perhaps the best known emblem book is Hans Holbein the Younger’s beautifully decorated The Dance of Death, in which woodcuts of various scenes and settings depict a skeleton reminding us of time’s wicked work on our health and aspirations. Beneath each woodcut is an epigram in verse. The best-known English practitioners of emblem books, Francis Quarles and George Wither, are hardly known at all, possibly because it’s hard to anthologize poems that are incomplete without an accompanying picture. Read More »
January 14, 2013 | by Jason Novak
A send-up of George Herbert’s famous seventeenth-century shape poem “The Altar,” featuring my own conflicted version of devotion.
Jason Novak works at a grocery store in Berkeley, California, and changes diapers in his spare time.