September 7, 2016 | by Shihab Al-Din Al-Nuwayri
This week, we’re publishing four short excerpts from The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, a fourteenth-century encyclopedia of … well, everything, or everything known to Arab civilization circa 1314. Compiled with dogged dedication by Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī, the book runs to more than nine thousand pages; an abridged version is now available for the first time in English. Ultimate Ambition lives up to its bold title—its eclectic, protean entries cover lunar cults, the sugary drinks in the sultan’s buttery, and how to attract your dream woman by burying a crow’s head. Its translator, Elias Muhanna, believes the compendium affords “a view into the kaleidoscopic and multifarious intellectual tradition of the classical Islamic world”; the New York Review of Books calls it “a bizarre, fascinating book that illustrate[s] the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam.” Today’s extract: Read More »
September 6, 2016 | by Shihab Al-Din Al-Nuwayri
This week, we’re publishing four short excerpts from The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition, a fourteenth-century encyclopedia of … well, everything, or everything known to Arab civilization circa 1314. Compiled with dogged dedication by Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī, the book runs to more than nine thousand pages; an abridged version is now available for the first time in English. Ultimate Ambition lives up to its bold title—its eclectic, protean entries cover lunar cults, the sugary drinks in the sultan’s buttery, and how to attract your dream woman by burying a crow’s head. Its translator, Elias Muhanna, believes the compendium affords “a view into the kaleidoscopic and multifarious intellectual tradition of the classical Islamic world”; the New York Review of Books calls it “a bizarre, fascinating book that illustrate[s] the sprawlingly heterodox reality of the early centuries of Islam.” Today’s extract:
On Qualities of Places with Respect to Different Things such as Knowledge, Work, Gems, Clothes, Furs, Carpets, Steeds, Poisonous Animals, Sweets, Fruits, Aromatics, Physical Features and Manners, Diseases, and Meteorological Phenomena
As for intellectual and professional qualities, one talks about the sages of Greece, the doctors of Jundaysābūr, the jewelers of Harrān, the weavers of Yemen, and the scribes of al-Sawād (in Iraq).
With jewels, one talks of the turquoise of Nishapur, the rubies of Sarandīb (Sri Lanka), the pearls of Oman, the emeralds of Egypt, the carnelian of Yemen, the onyx of Zafār, the garnets of Balkh, and the coral of Ifrīqiya. Read More »
August 10, 2016 | by Max Nelson
The “unlove and unfreedom” in Johnnie B. Smith’s work songs.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature.
During the thirteen years he spent jailed for murder on a Texas prison farm, Johnnie B. Smith sang work songs. In 1964, the ethnomusicologist Bruce Jackson met Smith during a trip through the state prison system to document the dwindling number of older, black prisoners who still knew the sorts of songs Smith led. He taped Smith’s renditions of a handful of standards: “Drop ’Em Down Together,” “Sure Make a Man Feel Bad,” “Poor Boy.” But Smith, Jackson soon learned, also sang songs of his own writing, stranger and more private than the ones he’d heard passed down.
These songs share a structure and melody, but they allow for a nearly limitless range of embellishments and improvisations. Their stanzas, for the most part, have four lines each—a single couplet sung in two variations. Their melody, which Smith adjusts verse by verse and song by song, is more difficult to describe. Its tempo accelerates and slows downs unexpectedly; its volume swells and falls; it changes gears rattlingly; it’s marked by disquieting pockets of silence. The shortest of these songs is over six minutes long; the longest, more than twenty-three.
At the time Jackson conducted his fieldwork, Ramsey—where Smith was held—was one of fourteen prisons in the Texas Correctional System. It comprised a sprawling farm property produced by combining five former plantations. Inmates felled trees, picked cotton, and worked the fields; the resulting products were either used within the prison or sold to cover the cost of housing the prisoners themselves. (As late as the early 1960s, the work teams were entirely segregated.) Ramsey’s inmates were, in effect, funding their own imprisonment, and for many decades black prisoners did so under conditions not much different from those of chattel slavery. The “riders” and “captains” Smith addresses across his songs were horse-mounted bosses whose brutality toward the work crews was widely known and feared. Read More »
July 21, 2016 | by Max Nelson
On September 14, 1838, the precociously gifted twenty-three-year-old poet Jones Very was removed under mysterious circumstances from his post as a Greek tutor at Harvard. The previous day, he had visited the Unitarian minister Henry Ware Jr., a prominent opponent of the radical new school of religious thought associated with Very’s friend Ralph Waldo Emerson and his Concord-based intellectual circle. Unprompted, Very started reciting a heated, controversial commentary on the twenty-fourth chapter of Matthew. “To Mr. Ware’s objections,” his fellow divinity student George Moore would later relate,
he said he was willing to yield, but that the spirit would not let him—that this revelation had been made to him, and that what he said was eternal truth—that he had fully given up his own will, and now only did the will of the Father—that it was the father who was speaking thro’ him. He thinks himself divinely inspired, and says that Christ’s second coming is in him.
June 29, 2016 | by Max Nelson
The memoirs of an imprisoned suffragette.
Max Nelson is writing a series on prison literature. Read the previous entry, on John Cleland’s very erotic prison novel, here.
In 1908, when she was thirty-seven, Lady Constance Lytton took a vacation by the sea in Littlehampton. She’d accepted a friend’s offer to spend the summer at the Esperance Club, a charity meant to teach working-class women traditional English dances and folk songs. During a walk through town one day, she found a crowd gathered around “a sheep which had escaped as it was being taken to the slaughterhouse.” Watching the animal stagger around to the crowd’s amusement, she wrote,
A vision suddenly rose in my mind of what it should have been on its native mountain-side with all its forces rightly developed, vigorous and independent. There was a hideous contrast between that vision and the thing in the crowd.
The vision of the sheep comes at the start of her 1914 autobiography, Prisons and Prisoners, in a chapter titled “My Conversion.” “It seemed to reveal for me for the first time,” Lytton continued, “the position of women throughout the world.” Read More »
June 28, 2016 | by Iris Smyles
Hosting a national blurb contest.
Walt Whitman, the “American bard,” who was named after a shopping mall in Huntington, New York, where I grew up, is often credited with having invented the book blurb. On the spine of his debut, Leaves of Grass, he had printed in gold leaf a line teased from a letter he’d gotten from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Emerson was right: Whitman continues to rank among America’s finest careerists.
Gertrude Stein, unable to break through to the literary mainstream, wrote herself a novel-length blurb entitled The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Writing as Alice, her live-in companion, she described at length Gertrude’s prodigious, if misunderstood, genius. This 252-page press kit was an immediate best seller, prompting Stein to embark on a national tour, which she described in Everybody’s Autobiography, a sequel explaining why you should hire her for speaking engagements.
Ernest Hemingway’s first short-story collection, In Our Time, was published with no fewer than six blurbs—on the cover. I can’t remember if he won the Nobel before or after he finished taping the beer commercials. With Toni Morrison, it was definitely before: Pulitzer, Nobel, Chipotle wrapper, in that order.
Will my novels secure my literary legacy the way Morrison’s and Hemingway’s did theirs? Will I ever see my name engraved on a line of high-quality toilets, I sometimes wonder, after hours of furious literary labor? Will I be immortal, like Whitman, transcending with my “song” the conventional boundaries of self? Will Kohler, the premier name in luxury flushing, ever ask me to be their spokeswoman? Read More »