The Daily

On the Shelf

Books Stop Bullets, and Other News

November 21, 2014 | by

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Photo via Reddit

  • At Florida State University, a student’s life was saved when the books in his backpack stopped a bullet. (Insert joke about e-books, importance of print here.)
  • On Boston’s David R. Godine, a publisher who “specializes in books nobody buys … Godine has a knack for nurturing Nobel Prize recipients; he was the first in the United States to publish Modiano as well as 2008 Nobel laureate J. M. G. Le Clézio. He is renowned for producing—if not always selling—eclectic and fastidiously assembled and designed books.”
  • “Like eros, wonder was once considered a dangerous passion. Much of the traditional intellectual ambivalence surrounding wonder derived from its affinity to the passions of horror and terror … Modern wonder, like many of the traditional passions, has faded from the saturated hues of blood red and lapis lazuli blue to baby pink and blue pastels. ‘Baby’ is used advisedly in this context: modern wonder has become infantilized, the stuff of children’s entertainment, whether in the form of cartoon fairy tales or science museum exhibitions.”
  • The first-ever weather forecast, from 1861: “North—Moderate westerly wind; fine. West—Moderate south-westerly; fine. South—Fresh westerly; fine.” (It was mostly accurate.)
  • … And today there are, apparently, commercial meteorologists, who “work behind the scenes to provide companies with customized weather data and analysis. On some days, like last Wednesday, that can entail cooling unfounded fears, while on others it means assisting corporate clients in prepping for a natural disaster. Whatever the weather throws at stores and shoppers, it’s the job of commercial meteorologists to help stores and their emergency management teams put a plan in place.” (Leaving their customers to make do with good old network-television meteorologists.)

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Remembering Mike Nichols, and Other News

November 20, 2014 | by

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A publicity shot of a young Mike Nichols, ca. 1970.

  • Last night there was a modest ceremony for a little-known prize called the National Book Award. Congratulations to its winners this year: Evan Osnos in nonfiction, for The Age of Ambition; Phil Klay in fiction, for his collection Redeployment; Louise Glück in poetry, for Faithful and Virtuous Night; and Jacqueline Woodson in young people’s literature, for Brown Girl Dreaming. The Daily interviewed Klay earlier this year, and The Paris Review published five of Glück’s poems in our Winter 2007 issue—read one here.
  • While we’re at it, why won’t the National Book Foundation bring back its award for translation, which was eliminated in the eighties? “The prize was a model of award-as-activism … Its administrators leveraged the National Book Awards’s clout in service of a category of literature that desperately needed popular attention and validation.”
  • Mike Nichols has died at eighty-three. (Not to diminish his incredible accomplishments as a director, but NB: his “Mother and Son” skit with Elaine May is still funny more than half a century later.)
  • A new game, Ether One, brings us closer to the experience of dementia: “Your job is to dive into the mind of Jean Thompson, a sixty-nine-year-old woman diagnosed with dementia, and retrieve a series of lost memories … The collection gradually overwhelms the player’s ability to remember just where all of these things came from and why they seemed important enough to retrieve. Why did I bring this plate all the way back here? Whose hat is this supposed to be again? It’s a tidy simulation of the cognitive degradation of dementia.”
  • How does one write a mouse-washing scene? There aren’t a lot of examples in literature, and in any event I didn’t want my mouse-washing scene to be contaminated by the work of other fiction writers.”

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Who Shot Van Gogh? and Other News

November 19, 2014 | by

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Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of Van Gogh, 1887.

  • Mark Twain’s career as an author began at a place called Jackass Hill, a boomtown gone bust where, in the local tavern, he heard the story that would become “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” “[I] turned my attention to seriously scribbling to excite the laughter of God’s creatures,” Twain wrote. “Poor, pitiful business!”
  • Today in terrifyingly ambiguous headlines: “Family’s agony over when to tell mother her premature babies died while she was in a coma after she woke up.”
  • “O to sail to sea in a ship!” Walt Whitman inspired many things—one of them, it turns out, was a logo.
  • Was Van Gogh … murdered? Conventional wisdom has it that he shot himself, but the facts don’t really support his suicide. “What kind of a person, no matter how unbalanced, tries to kill himself with a shot to the midsection? And then, rather than finish himself off with a second shot, staggers a mile back to his room in agonizing pain from a bullet in his belly?”
  • “I sometimes see science like art. People don’t necessarily see the connections to how it makes their lives better—this is not going to give them a better toaster, or something like that—but there is this feeling, just like with art, that this is important in some way. It is worth expending vital resources on, whether it’s tax money or people’s focus. It just feels worthwhile to do.” What we talk about when we talk about landing spacecrafts on comets.

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Advanced Studies in Time Wasting, and Other News

November 18, 2014 | by

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Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Symposium, 1894.

  • The Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year is vape, which can function as a noun or a verb and “arose to fill a gap in our lexicon.” One can only imagine all the e-cigarette manufacturers presently scrambling to send complimentary samples to Oxford University Press’s offices.
  • At last, someone’s teaching a course at the University of Pennsylvania called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” “Although we’ll all be in the same room, our communication will happen exclusively through chat rooms and listservs, or over social media. Distraction and split attention will be mandatory. So will aimless drifting and intuitive surfing.” I’ve been auditing this class unknowingly for my entire adult life. I must owe UPenn hundreds of thousands of dollars by now.
  • Today in algorithms: a new one “automatically generates an independent ranking of notable authors for a given year.” It’s intended to help archivists learn which books in the public domain were the most popular—but it also has huge ramifications for ego massage and ego damage.
  • “He leans his right elbow on several grapefruit-size balls he has made from rubber bands people have given him during his daily circuit of social pit stops in Manhattan. He keeps hard candy in his pockets and a box of dog biscuits in the trunk, for dispensing.” This is New York’s oldest cabbie.
  • The oldest leather shoe, by comparison, has been around for 5,500 years and can be seen at a museum in Armenia.

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Painting the Invisible Hippo, and Other News

November 17, 2014 | by

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Peter Paul Rubens, Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt, 1616.

  • A new book looks at the history of the literary feud—with an abundance of ripe examples, including “the battle between Bevis Hillier and AN Wilson in the 1980s. Wilson had published a devastating review of Hillier’s authorized biography of John Betjeman, calling it ‘a hopeless mishmash.’ When Wilson announced his own biography of Betjeman, he received a letter from a mysterious French woman including the copy of an unpublished letter from Betjeman to Honor Tracy, describing their affair. Wilson could not resist including it in his book, and when the biography came out Hillier gleefully revealed that the letter was an acrostic, spelling out ‘AN Wilson is a shit.’”
  • Today in evolving forms of literacy: Emoji as language. On Twitter, emoji are now used more frequently than hyphens, tildes, and the numeral five. Whither emoji-speak? And does this wordless tongue have any antecedents? (“In 1974, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation, designed a new system of symbols to be used in airports around the world in response to the increase in global travel … the design committee also made the following deduction: ‘We are convinced that the effectiveness of symbols is strictly limited.’ ”)
  • In 1616, Peter Paul Rubens painted a hippo. Problem: He had never laid eyes on a hippo. How did he do this?
  • A debut, of sorts, for Denis Johnson—as a visual artist. “His sketch is what I like to think of as three-quarters Basquiat, one-quarter ninth-grade geometry class.”
  • Writers and musicians seem to collaborate constantly, and yet it’s seldom a collaboration in the truest sense of the word. “Superficially, these collaborations fit into a pattern of writing and music as natural partners, one—to paraphrase Katharine Hepburn on Astaire and Rogers—providing the other with class, the other giving sex appeal … Perhaps tellingly, however, such liaisons tend to be one-off or short-lived … A novelist, playwright or poet providing words for someone else to turn into music and perform, although it is a model inherited from opera and musicals in earlier eras, is now surprisingly rare.”

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Sketches from an Artificial Mind, and Other News

November 14, 2014 | by

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Not a fair fight: five robots sketch one man. Photo via Beautiful/Decay

  • A new collection of stories from the tenth-century Arab world is agreeably unhinged, particularly when it comes to sex. In “The Story of the Forty Girls and What Happened to Them with the Prince,” for instance, “a Persian prince stumbles across an enchanted castle run by a sorceress and her troop of warlike female cousins. Divested of their armor, the girls prove to be ‘more beautiful than the houris of Paradise,’ and queue up to enjoy his favors (naturally they are all virgins). Finally the sorceress offers herself to him, forbidding the prince—who is impressively not yet exhausted—from approaching any of the others again on pain of being imprisoned, tortured and loaded with iron chains; conditions to which he cheerfully agrees. That’s forty couplings, and then some, since the sorceress, having miraculously regained her virginity, presents herself for a second deflowering.”
  • If you’d prefer to keep things chaste, look to love in the time of telegraphy. The nineteenth century saw a vibrant subgenre of the romance in which telegraph operators flirted across the wires. “There’s something incredibly modern about these amateur stories and the way they handle technology, the influence of corporations, gender, and love in the time of hyperconnection.”
  • A history of the New York Times Style section and its uncanny ability to court controversy: “For decades, many of us have used ‘reading the New York Times’ as a kind of performance, a shorthand to convey our seriousness or sophistication or social cachet, or yes, even our affluence. To read the Times daily, we think, is to signify that one is in this world, but not of We imagine ourselves the world’s observers, its makers, or even its collective conscience. We want to believe we are reading from far above the fray of Juicy Couture, or Botox, or any of a hundred other manifestations of rank consumerism, vanity and anxiety. The section instead is a jarring, insistent reminder of the folly of this fantasy. Styles, we are you.”
  • Novelists and musicians earn royalties on their work—visual artists don’t, meaning they receive nothing from multimillion-dollar deals involving their art. Art Royalties Too, a new bill making its way through the congressional meat grinder, will try to change that, but no one knows if it will pass. “Intellectual property is a very unusual area in Congress. As a general rule, you cannot predict where someone is going to be on an issue like this or on music licensing by knowing that he’s a Democrat or Republican.”
  • I wrote earlier this week about a robot that could give you the creepy sensation that someone is right behind you. But the world has no shortage of terrifying robots, and so now I give you this: Paul-IX, a robot who can sketch with more talent and accuracy than most humans. (If this robot teamed up with the other, it could get some great sketches of you looking creeped out.)

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