On the Shelf
December 19, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- On a new biography of Tove Jansson: “She discovered lesbian love … Biographies invariably contain a section on her sexuality and this one is no exception. Its insight that the creatures in Moominland called the Hattifatteners ‘resemble a wandering flock of penises or condoms’ is a point to ponder when reading aloud at bedtime.”
- What are the most important questions to ask ourselves when we read? “What is the emotional atmosphere behind this narrative? That’s the question I suppose I’m asking—and what is the consequent debate arising from that atmosphere?”
- The Chinese term for “effortless action” is wu wei. You’ll soon see it in self-help texts—and why not? Striving to try less hard may, in fact, be very self-helpful. “Wu wei is integral to romance, religion, politics and commerce. It’s why some leaders have charisma and why business executives insist on a drunken dinner before sealing a deal.”
- “A raucous, Sherlock Holmes–themed pantomime called ‘Mrs. Hudson’s Christmas Corker’ might not sound like the most highbrow play that London has to offer. But if you sample enough of the mulled wine being served in the foyer beforehand, you begin to see it differently.”
- Matisse’s cutouts are now—and not for the first time—the toast of the art world. But when he made them, he wasn’t so sure: “Matisse worried that working with cut paper was cheating—a shortcut to painting—and he kept it a secret. ‘It is necessary not to say anything about this,’ he wrote to his son Pierre, in 1931.”
December 18, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- A new report suggests that to stay relevant, libraries must become more like coffee shops, “vibrant and attractive community hubs.” You know, with Wi-Fi.
- And the future of roads is fewer roads, because we have too damn many of them. The Trip Generation Manual, a commonly consulted urban-planning guide, “may overestimate the number of trips generated from a new development by as much as 55 percent—‘phantom trips’ … The result is that cities may build way more roads than necessary, perpetuating sprawl and leaving less street space for non-drivers in the process.”
- Our editor Lorin Stein is judging Nowhere Magazine’s travel-writing contest—they’re “looking for young, old, novice and veteran voices to send us stories that possess a powerful sense of place.” First prize is a thousand dollars and submissions are due January 1.
- Secret Behavior is a new magazine about “what intimacy looks like”: “The first issue, which explored anonymity, is full of emotional money shots: self-portraits of men’s feet when they climax from masturbation (paired with their responses to the artist’s wanted ad), breakup fiction by Catherine Lacey, Jesper Fabricius’s anatomical encyclopedia made from close-cropped pornography.”
- A few months ago, John Paul Rollert wrote a piece for the Daily about an Ayn Rand conference in Vegas. Now he’s reported more on it in The Atlantic: “Escapism is the allure of Las Vegas. The city—with its shows, its clubs, even its casinos—is ultimately incidental. You come to leave your self behind. Escapism of a different sort is also the allure of a radical philosophy. It seduces not by promising a temporary solution to the contest between the grosser passions and personal integrity … but by providing an alternative vision of what the ‘real world’ constitutes.”
- With his album Pom Pom, Ariel Pink has delivered some of the best pop music of 2014: “It all seems to speak to people in that world, all these aged tweens,” he said in an interview: “Everybody still thinks they’re a tween, but they’re not. They’re former tweens. Generation tweens … the new twelve-year-olds pop up and usurp the former twelve-year-olds’ hegemony. That’s what I love about the music industry. It’s run by these kids. The children dictate what’s cool, and then everybody else just thinks that they’re a kid the rest of their lives.”
December 17, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- The origins of Times New Roman, the trustiest typeface of the PC era: “Times New Roman began as a challenge, when esteemed type designer Stanley Morison criticized London’s newspaper The Times for being out-of-touch with modern typographical trends. So The Times asked him to create something better. Morison enlisted the help of draftsman Victor Lardent and began conceptualizing a new typeface with two goals in mind: efficiency—maximizing the amount of type that would fit on a line and thus on a page—and readability.”
- A history of kitsch and its enduring power: “Kitsch is not about the thing observed but about the observer. It does not invite you to feel moved by the doll you are dressing so tenderly, but by yourself dressing the doll. All sentimentality is like this—it redirects emotion from the object to the subject, so as to create a fantasy of emotion without the real cost of feeling it. The kitsch object encourages you to think, ‘Look at me feeling this—how nice I am and how lovable.’ ”
- Great moments in swearing: an utterance in John Carpenter’s The Thing helped define our sense of a treasured obscenity. “The fuckin’ in ‘You gotta be fuckin’ kidding’ is surplus to compositional meaning but crucial to the moment and the encounter. Its trochee supplies essential force to the line’s measured disbelief, extending Palmer’s (and by extension the group’s) appalled bewilderment at the boggling form of their alien enemy.”
- A new book purports to bust the stereotypes behind archaeology: “the work is often poorly paid, physically demanding, and prone to controversy … the unemployment rate in the field [is] at about fifty per cent.” (This piece, to its great credit, mentions Indiana Jones zero times.)
- The best defense for research: “It’s in the archive where one forms a scholarly self—a self that, when all goes well, is intolerant of weak arguments and loose citation and all other forms of shoddy craftsmanship; a self that doesn’t accept a thesis without asking what assumptions and evidence it rests on; a self that doesn’t have a lot of patience with simpleminded formulas and knows an observation from an opinion and an opinion from an argument.”
December 16, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Congratulations to our art editor, Charlotte Strick, whose design for Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t made the New York Times’s list of the best book covers of 2014.
- Humankind has felt crunched for time for centuries, but now we really, really, really feel crunched for time. “If one’s leisure time feels like work that one doesn’t have time for, work itself increasingly feels like work one doesn’t have time for.” What effect has the speedup had on our cultural lives? A line from George Gissing’s New Grub Street (1891), of all things, applies perfectly to the rise of the online think piece: “The evil of the time is the multiplication of ephemerides … hence a demand for essays, descriptive articles, fragments of criticism, out of all proportion to the supply of even tolerable work.”
- How did a work of One Direction fan fiction garner more than a billion reads and a six-figure book deal? Especially when this is its plot synopsis? “When clean-cut Tessa leaves her family (and cardigan-wearing good-guy boyfriend, Noah) behind for university, she meets Hardin, a darker version of One Direction’s Harry Styles—a pierced and tattooed punk with a reputation as campus lothario. They start an excruciating on-again off-again relationship, punctuated with drunk sex, laddish input from Hardin’s friends (the other pseudonymous 1D boys), and some of literature’s saddest handjobs. All that in a few thousand pages … ” The secret lies in the devotion of fan-fic communities.
- Among AbeBooks’s most expensive used-book sales of 2014: a five-volume set of French Art Deco posters, Das Kapital, eighty-one Renaissance-era engravings of Mediterranean fish, a first edition of le Carré’s debut novel.
- And now, finally, pictures of people standing next to their televisions.
December 15, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Paul Muldoon on Beckett’s collected letters: “The letters collected here come in the wake of the success, in 1955, of the English version of Waiting for Godot, the play in which, according to the critic Vivian Mercier, ‘nothing happens, twice.’ One of the few things that do happen is that the tree that’s barren in Act I develops some foliage in Act II. But, as the high priest of lessness writes to the director Jerzy Kreczmar of the 1957 Warsaw production—‘The tree is perfect (perhaps a few leaves too many in the second act!)’—even that mustn’t be overstated.”
- Merriam-Webster’s word of the year is … culture. “When you put it next to another word it means something very different,” their editor at large said.
- The science of mondegreens: Why do we mishear lyrics? (“You’re much more likely to mishear ‘Cry Me a River’ as ‘Crimean River’ if you’ve recently been discussing the situation in Ukraine.”)
- “How can a writer make goodness interesting? George Eliot tried to do so by examining redemption in Silas Marner. The only problem is that the narrative jumps ahead, giving us the miserly misanthrope before and the radiant saint after he adopts a lost child … But where are the unheroic, sane, consistent, quiet goodnesses? As literature thrives on conflict, the idea of a sequestered, sanguine goodness might seem impossible.”
- The language of food: a new book crunches the data on the descriptions of 650,000 dishes from 6,500 menus. “Satisfied customers can be remarkably price-sensitive, if unconsciously so. The pleasures of expensive food are equated with sex; foie gras is seared ‘seductively’ and apple tart is ‘orgasmic.’ Cheap food, by contrast, is compared to drugs. Reviewers demand a ‘fix’ of fried chicken and liken cupcakes to crack.”
December 12, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Isn’t it time for the New York Times to abandon its senselessly decorous policy on obscenity? “America’s newspaper of record has a habit of relying on euphemism to shield its subscribers’ delicate sensibilities, as if Times readers are all wealthy dowagers prone to fainting spells at the merest suggestion that human beings have sex or excrete waste … We’re all adults here. Reading a dirty word in the newspaper won’t scandalize anyone.”
- The Victorians invented the future as we know it, insofar as it was only in the nineteenth century that we began to imagine a future that could be radically different from our present. “As new attitudes towards progress, shaped by the relationship between technology and society, started coming together … people started thinking about the future as a different place, or an undiscovered country—an idea that seems so familiar to us now that we often forget how peculiar it actually is.”
- And the Victorians invented our concept of the biography, too; it could do with some shaking up. “Biography seems remarkably consistent. There is a deep similarity between those worthy (and often fascinating) nineteenth-century volumes … and the contemporary biographies … Why hasn’t biography been as daring as the novel?”
- Peter Funch’s stunning photographs of Mount Baker re-create decades-old postcards, illustrating how the landscape has changed: “Although imperceptible, each photograph has a narrative.”
- An interview with Laure Prouvost: “I know I’m never going to fully grasp life in my art. It’s never as good as having the sun on your face. Even if you film someone with the sun on their face it feels as if you’ve lost something.”