On the Shelf
August 20, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Social media has warped the way we think of “sharing our stories,” but the status update hasn’t obviated the need for memoir. “I worry that we’re confusing the small, sorry details … for the work of memoir itself. I can’t tell you how many times people have thanked me for ‘sharing my story,’ as if the books I’ve written are not chiseled and honed out of the hard and unforgiving material of a life but, rather, have been dashed off … I haven’t unburdened myself, or softly and earnestly confessed. Quite the opposite.”
- A bit of searing on-the-ground reporting from James Joyce’s birthday party, 1931: “The waiter brings a special wine which Joyce recommends to us very earnestly though he does not drink it himself as it is red. It is Clos Saint Patrice, 1920 … ‘He is the only saint whom a man can get drunk in honor of,’ Joyce says, praising Patrick in this way. We laugh, but he insists that this is high praise … In the apartment to which we return there is jollity. George Joyce sings; Sullivan sings; James Joyce sings.”
- And while we’re on Joyce: “I started illustrating Finnegans Wake in 2009 because no one convinced me not to,” writes a man who has illustrated Finnegans Wake because no one told him not to.
- The third novel in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series is out this month, and Ferrante—a pseudonym—has granted a rare interview. Is this why she guards her identity? “‘My desk mate, with whom I had a great friendship, suggested we write a novel together,’ she explains. Together, they came up with a story, and the friend wrote the first chapter. Ferrante didn’t like it, and so she wrote the entire story herself, from beginning to end, telling her friend she wasn’t up to the project.”
- Don Pardo, the distinctive, stentorian announcer for Saturday Night Live, died this week; he got his start in game shows. “Staff announcer was such a prestigious job that members of the profession, in another holdover from radio, typically wore tuxedos while on the job, even though the audience hardly ever saw them and they were mainly confined to an ‘announce booth’ in or near the studio. Even simple station breaks—‘This is the National Broadcasting Company’—were done live from those close quarters.”
August 19, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Catching up with two subjects from a 1964 Garry Winogrand photograph—that one, up there—fifty years later: “I never saw a photographer, or anyone taking our picture. It was not like today, when people are taking pictures every minute. We were just a bunch of girls out having fun. Why would anyone take our picture?”
- Whither the book jacket? “If, for the majority of books, the jacket no longer serves a protective function, it still shields the subcutaneous narrative metaphorically. As we spend more of our reading time in digital, disembodied, notional environments where texts lack differentiation and may easily leach into one another unconstrained, covers (and physical books in general) remain part of an anxious cultural effort to corral and contain the boundless.”
- Humor is dead, subtlety is dead: Facebook is now proposing to append a “satire” tag to any shared article with a comic bent—the equivalent of winking after every joke.
- Sensory deprivation used to be a form of torture; the CIA thought it could help with brainwashing. Now it’s a form of therapy.
- “Escaping into video games is something that people have been doing since video games were first invented … Traditional media cannot provide the amount of hours of entertainment that games can, exercise and sports are limited by physical exhaustion and most other hobbies or activities would be impractical if pursued to the same extent … It could be argued that the last two decades or so through which the video game has risen to prominence have created a boondoggle of incalculable proportions.”
August 18, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- In the summer of 2011, Phyllis Rose went to the New York Society Library and read one entire shelf of fiction—specifically, the shelf marked LEQ-LES. “In their obscurity, these books might be dull, bad or even unreadable; they might, in fact, be a total waste of her time. But she also felt certain that, should she embark on such a scheme, she would find herself on the readerly equivalent of virgin snow, for who else would have read this precise sequence of novels? … What followed was sometimes hard work and sometimes great fun. It was exasperating but also invigorating; deeply boring and yet surprisingly exciting.”
- Congratulations to Louise Erdrich, who’s won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize’s distinguished achievement award. “The Dayton prizes are meant to recognize literature’s power to foster peace, social justice, and global understanding, and the distinguished achievement award is given for body of work.”
- “You can’t kill e-mail! It’s the cockroach of the Internet, and I mean that as a compliment. This resilience is a good thing … E-mail is actually a tremendous, decentralized, open platform on which new, innovative things can and have been built … Yes, e-mail is exciting. Get excited!”
- From “a guide to the sexual understanding of great buildings”: “Right angles don’t attract me. Nor straight, hard and inflexible lines created by man. What attracts me are free and sensual curves. The curves we find … in the body of the woman we love.”
- It’s a radical act of self-reference. It’s a paradigm-shattering instance of recursion. It’s … the world’s most profoundly stupid sign, a sign whose sole purpose is to warn you against hitting your head on it.
August 15, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Trend alert: “Dystopian fiction is passé now,” says Lois Lowry, the author of The Giver.
- This blog post about life on a commercial whaling ship is kind of long, but boy, it’s a fucking masterpiece!
- Is there a writer with a reputation more complicated than Martin Amis’s? “Amis occupies a really peculiar position in our national life. He is the object of envy, contempt, anger, disapproval, theatrical expressions of weariness—but also of fascination. Has there in living memory been a writer whom we (by which I mean the papers, mostly) so assiduously seek out for comment—we task him to review tennis, terrorism, pornography, the state of the nation—and whom we are then so keen to denounce as worthless? … It's as if, and in answer to some inchoate public need, we demand of Amis that he say things in public so we can all agree on what an ass he is.”
- There’s a kind of brinksmanship at work in the language of menus, which use verbose descriptions to confer status to food. According to new research, “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of sixty-nine cents in the price of that dish.”
- “The subject of fashion friendships is intriguing … I’m struck by two divergent realities—one conveyed by social media and one I know at close range. They are not one and the same, despite how a photo of two pals (or two enemies) might appear. Because the most meaningful stuff in fashion occurs in private places, and some degree of trust is vital to getting inside.”
August 14, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Residents of Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, rise up, and reclaim Gilbert Sorrentino as your bard! “Sorrentino died of lung cancer in Brooklyn in 2006; he remains widely uncelebrated in his own neighborhood, his own borough, despite the fact that so many of his books are set there, and he lived so much of his life there. The Fort Hamilton High School Alumni Association doesn’t list him in its Hall of Fame. The libraries don’t stock his books, and neither does the local bookstore. I spent thirty years in Bay Ridge as a bookish neighborhood enthusiast without ever hearing his name, until a poet mentioned it to me in passing.”
- Where do typos come from? Our foolish brains, and their inveterate laziness. There’s no escaping it, really.
- Which is part of why we need editors—but even editors aren’t good enough. What the world needs, apparently, is robot editors: “Students almost universally resist going back over material they’ve written … [but they] are willing to revise their essays, even multiple times, when their work is being reviewed by a computer and not by a human teacher. They end up writing nearly three times as many words … Students who feel that handing in successive drafts to an instructor wielding a red pen is ‘corrective, even punitive’ do not seem to feel rebuked by similar feedback from a computer.”
- “It’s a common and easy enough distinction, this separation of books into those we read because we want to and those we read because we have to, and it serves as a useful marketing trope for publishers, especially when they are trying to get readers to take this book rather than that one to the beach. But it’s a flawed and pernicious division … There are pleasures to be had from books beyond being lightly entertained. There is the pleasure of being challenged; the pleasure of feeling one’s range and capacities expanding; the pleasure of entering into an unfamiliar world, and being led into empathy with a consciousness very different from one’s own … ”
- Exploring the annals of Dalkey Archive Press, which is now thirty years old.
August 13, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- RIP, Lauren Bacall. “Her simplest remark sounded like a jungle mating call, one critic said.” (He meant it as a compliment—I think … )
- Michel Gondry’s new film, Mood Indigo, is based on L’Écume des Jours, a 1946 novel by Boris Vian whose title “literally means either ‘The Foam of the Days’ or ‘The Scum of the Days’ but has been translated as ‘Froth on the Daydream,’ ‘Foam of the Daze,’ and—after the Duke Ellington song—‘Mood Indigo.’ The problem of translating Vian doesn’t end with titles. His books are crawling with wordplay: puns, mixed metaphors, neologisms, you name it.”
- Speaking of translational difficulties, here’s how to give yourself an anxiety dream: just before bed, imagine being the first translator to attempt War and Peace or Anna Karenina. “Not only was the sheer prolixity of Tolstoy’s great novels a deterrent to all but the most determined of translators, but after the urbane Turgenev, whose measured prose slipped so easily into English, Tolstoy was also far more unpolished, more uncompromising and, well, altogether more Russian.”
- How to give yourself an anxiety dream, part two: like everything on Facebook and watch as your hyper-personalized world crumbles around you. “Literally everything Facebook sent my way, I liked—even if I hated it. I decided to embark on a campaign of conscious liking, to see how it would affect what Facebook showed me … I began dreading going to Facebook. It had become a temple of provocation … By liking everything, I turned Facebook into a place where there was nothing I liked.”
- Is the science-fiction writer R. A. Lafferty due for a comeback? “Lafferty’s most accessible and widely read novel, Space Chantey, is a psychedelic, Homeric odyssey in which space captain Roadstrum leads an expedition to the pleasure planet Lotophage, where the immortal houri Margaret tells him, very wisely, that ‘there are worse places to live than in tall stories.’ ”