On the Shelf
April 24, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Fact: in 1934, H. G. Wells interviewed Stalin.
- Professor Richard H. Hoggart has died, at ninety-five. In 1960, Hoggart helped to end British censorship of Lady Chatterley’s Lover; he is “widely credited as the most persuasive in convincing a jury of nine men and three women that Lawrence’s graphic descriptions of sex between Lady Constance Chatterley and her husband’s groundskeeper, Oliver Mellors, were not obscene.”
- Beijing now has a twenty-four-hour bookstore. It has nightly promotional offers and air-conditioning. “We want to create an intellectual environment for book lovers,” the store’s manager said. But lest you think it sounds like paradise: “We mainly sell social science books.”
- The critic Franco Moretti “pursues literary research of a digital and quantitative nature”; in other words, he handles books as if they’re mountains of data. “I’m interested in the survival of genres, of texts, of forms. I’m a formalist. I think that should be the basis of literary analysis because, I suspect, that is also the basis of readers’ choices, although readers may not be aware of that. They don’t seem to choose a story. They choose a story told in a certain way, with a certain style and sense of events.”
- For Mary Gaitskill, Let’s Talk About Love, Carl Wilson’s excellent book about Céline Dion, becomes a meditation on our preoccupation with cool: our ferocious disdain for Dion suggests we live in “a world of illusory shared experiences, ready-made identities, manipulation, and masks so dense and omnipresent that in this world, an actual human face is ludicrous or ‘crazy’; a world in which authenticity is jealously held sacrosanct and yet is often unwelcome or simply unrecognizable when it appears.”
April 23, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Will García Márquez’s unpublished manuscript ever see the light of day?
- The eagerly anticipated third edition of the OED won’t appear until 2034—and it probably won’t be available in print.
- “The ark is the first impressive man-made creation, the world’s first ambitious piece of technology. In the world of Genesis … a world of slick-talking snakes, cherubs with flaming swords, and guys who live to be eight hundred years old—the ark gives us something pragmatic, something with worldly dimensions. In other words, some literary realism.”
- Meanwhile, in 1895: What compelled Paul Gauguin to take off his pants and play the harmonium? Science may never know.
- Hey, hotshot: “the way we Americans casually, often unthinkingly, incorporate gun metaphors into our everyday slang says a lot about how deeply embedded guns are in our culture and our politics, and how difficult it is to control or extract them.”
April 22, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Have booksellers discovered Shakespeare’s annotated dictionary?
- Laura Ingalls Wilder collaborated with her daughter on many books in the Little House on the Prairie series, and it wasn’t always a cooperative arrangement. A letter from 1938 suggests the scope of their creative frictions: “Here you have a young girl,” Wilder’s daughter wrote to her about one character, “a girl twelve years old, who’s led a rather isolated life with father, mother, sisters in the country, and you can not have her suddenly acting like a slum child who has protected her virginity from street gangs since she was seven or eight.”
- What was in your average Soviet cosmonaut’s survival kit circa 1968? Among other specialties: three balaclavas, a tripartite rifle/shotgun/flare-gun, and a pistol intended to frighten “wolves, bears, tigers, etc.” in the event of a crash landing.
- A new app called Cloak helps you “avoid exes, co-workers, that guy who likes to stop and chat—anyone you’d rather not run into.” Which makes life a bit more miserable, it turns out: “‘All Clear: There’s nobody nearby’ reads like such a strange, sad message, such a lonely thing to have achieved through technological control of our social environments. Looking at that screen makes me want to place my phone face down on my desk, go out into the street, and walk around until I bump into someone I know.”
- Christian Montenegro, an Argentinean illustrator, makes arresting drawings that look like eclectic contemporary woodcuts.
April 21, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- On that ever-mysterious rubric, “literary fiction”: “It was clever marketing by publishers to set certain contemporary fiction apart and declare it Literature—and therefore Important, Art, and somehow better than other writing … Jane Austen’s works are described as literary fiction. This is nonsense … Austen never for a moment imagined she was writing Literature. Posterity decided that—not her, not John Murray, not even her contemporary readership. She wrote fiction, to entertain and to make money.”
- The French economist Thomas Piketty has alighted upon our shores, “like a wonkish heir to de Tocqueville, to tell Americans how to salvage what he called their ‘egalitarian pioneer ideal’ from a potentially devastating ‘drift toward oligarchy.’”
- A salve for irritated prescriptivists: this new browser extension literally replaces every instance of literally with figuratively, all over the Internet.
- Gillette’s new razor does violence to the spirit of entrepreneurship: “It’s a men’s razor that does what every other men’s razor since time immemorial has done—removes hair from your face—but with ‘a swiveling ball-hinge’ that the company says will make it easier to get a clean shave … The razor represents everything terrible about America’s innovation economy.”
- Online, the Boston Public Library has more than 25,000 U.S. postcards from the thirties and forties, all of them vividly illustrated.
April 18, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Marianne Moore’s strange, sad childhood: “Mary [her mother] established a pattern whereby Marianne, in family conversations and correspondence, was invariably referred to as a boy and identified only with male pronouns. Furthermore, Mary encouraged the siblings to regard each other as ‘lovers,’ and to think of her as their ‘lover,’ too.”
- In the Paris of the eighteenth century, elite prostitutes were monitored by the fuzz—but why? “A final and enduring theory is that the reports were meant as bedtime reading for King Louis XV and his mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour, who had been the protector of the police lieutenant general most responsible for establishing the unit in the first place. According to this theory, the reports were meant to enliven the reputedly jaded, enervated royal sex life.”
- Japanese astronauts took some cherry pits into space. Now, one of them has grown into a mighty cherry tree, perhaps with superpowers.
- “Adventure Time is a smash hit cartoon aimed primarily at kids age six to eleven. It’s also a deeply serious work of moral philosophy, a rip-roaring comic masterpiece, and a meditation on gender politics and love in the modern world.”
- “I can’t articulate exactly what it was that turned the roller rink into fantasy-on-wheels for me … the feelings I sought only came from visits to those dingy rinks—their smell of ashtrays, sweat, and desolation. In retrospect, part of what I craved was the roller rink’s ability to detach me from the everyday. Because I frequented roller rinks as they were on their way ‘out,’ they seemed to exist apart from the regular world.”
April 17, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- On Vijay Seshadri, the poet who won this year’s Pulitzer: “The combination of epic sweep … and piercing, evocative detail is characteristic of the contribution Seshadri has made to the American canon.”
- Next week at Lincoln Center, Rachel Kushner introduces Anna, a seventies documentary that will be familiar to readers of The Flamethrowers: it “centers on the titular pregnant, homeless sixteen-year-old whom the filmmakers discovered in Rome’s Piazza Navona.”
- “In a small series of sheds in Sussex a nineteenth-century joker and eccentric hoarded the evidence that reconciles Shakespeare the playwright with Shakespeare the man.”
- Heaven Is for Real “is based on the mega-bestseller by a pastor whose four-year-old had major surgery, after which he knew things he couldn’t possibly have known, and also claimed to have met Jesus … The intended audience appears to be people in medically induced comas who enjoy Nebraska-themed screensavers and who think that Michael Landon had a little too much ‘bad boy edge’ on Highway to Heaven.”
- What’s this? Just the average story of a doctor-buccaneer who lived among the natives of Panama in the seventeenth century: “It took almost an hour for his shipmates to recognize him. Then one started backwards in shock. ‘Why! Here’s our doctor!’ the man cried, and a crowd gathered around him, trying to rub off the geometric paint that obscured his features. It was Lionel Wafer, the pirate surgeon.”
- In 1951, when the sociologist C. Wright Mills published White Collar: The American Middle Classes, “an entire society was being white-collarized. Status and prestige, emotional games and office politics: These were leaking out of the workplace and into the world, coloring the entire way people interacted and organized their time and leisure. The frankly confrontational style of blue-collar work and industrial unions was disappearing.”