On the Shelf
January 30, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- In 1791, a fifteen-year-old Jane Austen wrote The History of England, a satirical pamphlet “by a partial, prejudiced & ignorant Historian,” featuring watercolor illustrations by her sister, Cassandra.
- Out of print and in demand: What are the most sought-after books no longer being published? Norman F. Dixon’s On the Psychology of Military Incompetence (1976) leads the list—there’s also “an enthusiast’s guide to building bamboo fly-rods” and Madonna’s Sex.
- Tom Stoppard’s new play is opening at the National Theatre in London. Tickets are very hard to come by—it might be easier just to write your own Tom Stoppard play. Here’s a step-by-step guide. Remember, “what you’re aiming for is intellectual sparring that manages to be tragic and comic at the same time, while alluding to a universal emotional truth and revealing a vast, in-depth knowledge of the literary canon. Basically like the way you think you talk to your oldest friend when you’re both drunk. Do not shy away from paradox and metatextuality!”
- Or maybe you’d rather try your hand at some fiction from Africa. In 2006’s How to Write About Africa, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina advised, “Always use the word Africa or Darkness or Safari in your title … be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention ... Africa is doomed.” But in the years since he made those pronouncements, “writing from Africa has flowered, and many of those clichés have been dispelled … This is a fertile moment when young writers are emerging as some of the elders they grew up reading are still at their peak … This cross-generational richness enhances a literature that today ranges from dirty realism and crime thrillers to science fiction, digital serials and graphic novels.”
- One man’s intrepid journey into the craft of hand-making lace: “I had no teacher, and unlike knitting classes in knitting stores, never considered that I could find one even in a metropolis like New York City. Indeed, if you ask employees in yarn stores if they have any tatting supplies, half will not know what you are talking about and say no, and the other half will know what you are talking about but still say no.”
January 29, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- W. H. Auden was a professor at the University of Michigan for the 1941–42 academic year. His course was called Fate and the Individual in European Literature, and its syllabus mandated more than six thousand pages of reading: The Divine Comedy, The Brothers Karamazov, Moby-Dick, Fear and Trembling …
- Coming to the Huntington Library: Jane Austen’s family letters, Wicked Ned the Pirate’s watercolors, Louis Pasteur’s beer notes (“scribbled on pages of various sizes, in black and blue ink”).
- On Pedro Lemebel, a Chilean writer (and artist and activist and provocateur) who died last week: “a writer who called himself a ‘queen’ (una loca) and ‘a poor old faggot’ (un marica pobre y viejo), and whose style and obsessions were forged on the social margins and in political opposition.”
- Alfred Hitchcock’s unreleased documentary about the Holocaust, suppressed for decades, is being screened in full for the first time later this year. “The film, shown at test screenings, extremely disturbed colleagues, experts and film historians.”
- Fear death? Sure you do! Don’t just sit there drumming your fingers and waiting for the end, though. Talk about it. Over coffee. At a Swiss death café. “The idea for the café mortel was simple: the gathering was to take place in a restaurant, anyone could come, and [Bernard] Crettaz [a Swiss sociologist] himself would gently marshal the conversation. The only rule was that there was to be no prescription: no topic, no religion, no judgment. He wanted people to talk as openly on the subject as they could.”
January 28, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- In 1849, not long before he died, Edgar Allan Poe wrote a book called Eureka, the goal of which was nothing less than to outline the origins of the universe. “It’s like a nineteenth-century version of the many manuscripts I have received over the decades from brilliant but deranged autodidacts … Imagine what you might get if you toss Aristotle’s Metaphysics and Newton’s Principia in a blender along with scoops of gothic rhetoric and romantic philosophy.” Did Poe unwittingly anticipate modern cosmology? Well, no—but his book is still fun to read.
- On writing and bravery, or the lack thereof: “Although I acknowledge it can be scary to set down what you think and feel, I’m not sure brave is the operative description … This is my problem with brave and other words like it: They do not engage but rather insist. They are singular, anti-conversational, self-congratulatory even; they pre-digest our experience, before we get a chance to have it for ourselves.”
- “Political correctness is a style of politics in which the more radical members of the left attempt to regulate political discourse by defining opposing views as bigoted and illegitimate. Two decades ago, the only communities where the left could exert such hegemonic control lay within academia, which gave it an influence on intellectual life far out of proportion to its numeric size. Today’s political correctness flourishes most consequentially on social media, where it enjoys a frisson of cool and vast new cultural reach. And since social media is also now the milieu that hosts most political debate, the new p.c. has attained an influence over mainstream journalism and commentary beyond that of the old.”
- How did pottery become art? A new exhibition in Boston tells the story of American ceramics: “Sometimes art is defined by uselessness. An object that remains functional never quite gains the aura that is normally associated with the highest creations of the imagination … For a century and more, many ambitious ceramicists have labored to lift the status of their craft. In the process, they have left behind any notion of utility, creating objects that, while they may nod to their antecedents in the cup, the jug or the storage jar, are gloriously (and often preposterously) impractical.”
- Joe Franklin, who “presided over one of the most compellingly low-rent shows in television history,” died last weekend at eighty-eight. He left behind an office overflowing with memorabilia and historic clutter, “mounds formed by stacks of old reels of silent films, publicity photos and press copies of books. There were playbills from the Booth Theater from the 1920s and a VHS tape of the comedian Sarah Silverman … somewhere in there was Bing Crosby’s hat, along with a lipstick-smeared drinking glass Marilyn Monroe sipped from on the show. Also somewhere was the tie clip that Ronald Reagan gave Mr. Franklin.”
January 27, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- From the department of own-horn-tooting: Looking for something to read today? Try The Paris Review. But you didn’t hear it from us: “One thing I’d like to have on my blanketed lap today,” Dwight Garner wrote, “is the new issue of The Paris Review. That journal has found its mojo, in a big way … The new one has among other things a warm and wise interview with the memoirist and essayist Vivian Gornick that’s worth the price of admission alone.”
- India’s Jaipur Literary Festival is advertised as the largest free literary festival in the world. “This year it attracted an estimated 80,000. And on the fourth day, with 20,000 packed into the disorderly old palace complex where it is held, and the queues for entry still growing, the police abruptly closed the gates. They feared a stampede was coming. But who were these people? And what were they coming for?”
- A new book looks at midcentury graphic design in California, which had a sensibility and influence all its own: “Fuck New York. Fuck Europe. We’ll figure out what art is.”
- Whither the ukulele? It began its life as a piece of exotica and then, in the hands of Tiny Tim, descended promptly into kitsch—but some say it’s enjoying a revival. “The ukulele still plays its role as everyman instrument quite convincingly.”
- Today in people who are wrong: “Today’s minor arts, I think, include theater, ballet, opera, symphonic music, and literary fiction. These still include small audiences whose members are not also creators, audiences who patronize these arts in part out of an inherited feeling that these are superior to movies or genre fiction … The literary novel, too, may be on its way to losing its minor art status and becoming a pure hobby.”
January 26, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- On the rise of the medical humanities: Can poetry’s therapeutic effects earn it a place on the doctor’s bookshelf? “Poetry can tell us about human experience, but it does this in its own language and not the more straightforward language of prose. It works by suggestion, but this doesn’t mean that it cannot console, teach, amuse, enlighten, mimic, disconcert and so much more. It can capture—or cause us to reconstruct—experiences and feelings that we might otherwise not be conscious of … Poetry’s use of language is at the furthest extreme from the self-help book, which is often dogmatic, insistent, reductive, bullying even.”
- How to cheer yourself up when you’re feeling misunderstood: read scathing early reviews of canonical novels, such as this one, by H. L. Mencken, for a certain 1925 classic: “Scott Fitzgerald’s new novel, The Great Gatsby, is in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that … This story is obviously unimportant … What ails it, fundamentally, is the plain fact that it is simply a story—that Fitzgerald seems to be far more interested in maintaining its suspense than in getting under the skins of its people.”
- Yvette Marie Dostatni’s new series of photographs documents the rise of the convention in America: the obsessive subcultures, the hotel conference rooms, the sprawling trade shows. “That's just the culture of the United States: People are looking for places they can fit in for two to three days, a pass to get out of their daily lives. They’re looking for people who are like them.”
- Is there any hope of preserving or archiving the Internet? “The Web dwells in a never-ending present. It is—elementally—ethereal, ephemeral, unstable, and unreliable … In providing evidence, legal scholars, lawyers, and judges often cite Web pages in their footnotes … but a 2013 survey of law- and policy-related publications found that, at the end of six years, nearly fifty per cent of the URLs cited in those publications no longer worked.”
- Among a certain kind of “creative” Silicon Valley set, the word maker has taken on a grating ubiquity—you’re not truly innovating if you’re not making something. Does this mean that, say, teaching is not a fundamentally creative pursuit? “I am not a maker. In a framing and value system is about creating artifacts, specifically ones you can sell, I am a less valuable human. As an educator, the work I do is superficially the same, year on year … To characterize what I do as ‘making’ is to mistake the methods—courses, workshops, editorials—for the effects. Or, worse, if you say that I ‘make’ other people, you are diminishing their agency and role in sense-making, as if their learning is something I do to them.”
January 23, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Resolve your literary feud the media-friendly way: (1) do it at a public event, (2) make sure there’s not a dry eye in the house, and (3) invoke the memory of Charles Dickens, just for the sport of it. More than fifteen years ago, V. S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux “fell out in a spectacularly-bitter war of words, after Naipaul sold some of Theroux’s gifts at auction. The anger seethed for almost two decades. But on Wednesday the hatchet was resoundingly buried, with eighty-two-year-old Naipaul breaking down in tears after Theroux praised one of his most famous books at a literary festival in India, and compared the author to Charles Dickens.”
- Centuries ago, an excavation in Italy revealed a collection of some two thousand ancient Roman scrolls, most of them treatises on Epicurean philosophy. Unfortunately, the scrolls have a tendency to crumble in your hands, which makes it fairly difficult to read or even preserve them. People have tried taking knives to them (didn’t work), applying a gelatin-based adhesive (didn’t work), or just throwing them away (didn’t work). The latest solution: X-rays.
- The architect who bought Ray Bradbury’s Los Angeles house demolished it earlier this month, thus unleashing a furor from Bradbury fans. “It’s really been a bummer,” the architect said, adding in his defense that the home was exceptionally bland. “I could make no connection between the extraordinary nature of the writer and the incredible un-extraordinariness of the house.” Yesterday he hatched a new plan to honor the space: a wall.
- On Quvenzhané Wallis’s black Annie: “the fact that a black Annie has arrived on the scene at this particular cultural moment seems to me cruelly ironic … When it comes to persuading Americans about the virtue of selfishness, Ayn Rand has nothing on Annie … By making innocence seem invulnerable, Annie and other Teflon kids in fiction and film have helped to enable the widespread apathy about social inequalities that allows Americans to claim that our society is child-centered even though the percentage of children living in poverty in this country continues to grow.”
- Has technology accelerated life to the point of meaninglessness? On Judy Wajcman’s Pressed for Time: “Wajcman recalls seeing, at a nursing home, a daughter with one arm slung around her elderly mother, the other tapping on her smartphone. Though Wajcman acknowledges an initial negative judgment of this scene, she quickly reconsidered. The elderly mother was clearly not very aware of her surroundings and was likely comforted by her daughter’s presence. The daughter was able to provide this solace while engaging in other activities. (She could also have been reading a book or magazine.) Is this really to be condemned?”