On the Shelf
June 29, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Ken Kalfus is on his way to the bookstore, and he’s not having a swell time—because how can you, anymore? “Bookstores have become places of regret and shame. We once enjoyed shopping in them or simply looking in their windows, back in the days when they were ordinary retail establishments. They were like stores that sold shoes or hats, but with more appealing merchandise. Now they’ve taken on moral significance. Buying a book and choosing the place to do so involve delicate and complicated considerations. You may fail to do the right thing.”
- Philip Larkin will soon be honored with a flagstone at Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey—a kind of rarefied Walk of Fame where he’ll join such august forebears as Chaucer, Dickens, and Ted Hughes. Asterisk: Larkin regarded his fellow flagstoners, to a one, as hacks. “We do not find any great striving towards artistic greatness,” he said of The Canterbury Tales; Dickens was “hectic, nervy, panic-stricken,” with “queer names, queer characters”; and Hughes he regarded as simply “no good at all.”
- From the annals of censorship: Thomas Hardy’s original manuscript for Tess of the D’Urbervilles fell afoul of the morality police in strange ways. Macmillan’s Magazine, which rejected the novel for its “immoral situations,” thought Hardy overused the word succulent: “Perhaps I might say that the general impression left on me by reading your story … is one of rather too much succulence.” Another magazine, Graphic, wouldn’t serialize it until Hardy removed “references to characters traveling on a Sunday and to rewrite the scene in which Angel Clare carries Tess and her fellow milkmaids over a stream—one of the novel’s great moments of muted desire—so that he instead pushed her across in a wheelbarrow.”
- Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs was a strange book when it appeared in 1995—it’s even stranger now. A novel based on a piece he’d reported for Wired, it endorses a kind of techno-utopia in which start-ups can give real meaning to life, but “the possibility that work within a capitalist system, no matter how creative and freeform and unlike what your parents did, might be fundamentally incompatible with self-actualization and spiritual fulfillment is not on the table.” And the Internet is only a glimmer, if not a mirage, on the horizon. “This highway,” one character asks of the Information Superhighway: “Is it a joke? You hear so much about it, but really, what is it … The media has gone berserk with Net-this and Net-that. It’s a bit much. The Net is cool, but not that cool.”
- Nonfiction publishing is full of middlebrow “talking-point books”: essentially swollen magazine pieces that hang shoddy scholarship on some banal marketing hook. “We have a flock of books arguing that the internet is either the answer to all our problems or the cause of them; we have scads of books telling us about the importance of mindfulness, or forgetfulness, or distraction, or stress. We have any number about what one recent press release called the ‘always topical’ debate between science and religion. We have a whole subcategory that concern themselves with ‘what it means to be human.’”
June 26, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- In Moscow, a new exhibition remembers Soviet Photo, the USSR’s premier photography magazine. Among its many treasures: gymnasts, factories, eggs … and a picture of Khrushchev and Castro drinking ebulliently from horns.
- Whither the aphorism? It’s a more popular form than ever—insert obligatory Twitter reference here—but are we using it to its fullest potential? “An aphorism is not a truth but a kind of test (an assay), a statement you are meant to run up against to decide if you agree. If you don’t agree, that is not necessarily a failure of the aphorism. The best aphorisms are not the most true but the most undecidable, those worth endlessly testing.”
- For that matter, whither the NYPL? It, too, doesn’t seem to live up to its full potential: “The New York Public Library has been under intermittent financial pressure for most of its history, but in the last few years it has been enveloped by a controversy that has exposed the institution to unprecedented public scrutiny. What stands revealed is a library that is abandoning its core mission of research and is losing its way in the digital age.”
- “Though psychoanalysis didn’t help Berryman’s alcoholism or state of mind, it did serve to open him up to his inner self, and it was amid the rubble of that excavation that he found his alter-ego: messy Henry, destructive Henry, hateful Henry, devious Henry, pathetic, sozzled, recidivist Henry, self-loathing Henry, song and dance Henry, peccant Henry, grab-ass Henry, stricken-with-guilt Henry, Henry the enduring ruin … ‘Henry does resemble me,’ Berryman told an interviewer, ‘and I resemble Henry; but on the other hand I am not Henry. You know, I pay income tax. Henry pays no income tax. And bats come over and stall in my hair—and fuck them, I’m not Henry; Henry doesn’t have any bats.’” August Kleinzahler on John Berryman.
- At the Beinecke Library, the Yale Collection of American Literature houses innumerable rarities and treasures. It also has those insipid “Cultivating Thought” cups and bags from Chipotle. “As much as it sounds like a joke, it fits into a tradition of American writers trying to reach unusual audiences through unusual (if brief) work—and of libraries collecting their labor.”
June 25, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Looking for good summer reading? Our editor, Lorin Stein, went on NPR’s On Point to discuss the season’s best books.
- Between 1935 and the early forties, the WPA issued some two million silkscreened posters. Whatever their subjects and intentions—some were public health initiatives, others supported the parks, and others still were straight-up propaganda—the posters, in their ubiquity, had a profound effect on graphic design and commercial art. “The surge of interest in new typographical design and the influence of the WPA Poster Project’s supervisor, Richard Floethe, had a dynamic effect on the project designers. Floethe had studied at the Bauhaus and genuinely believed in a utilitarian approach to art. The designer, he felt, should be equally at home in industrial design, stage design, typography or painting. Good visual thinking could be applied to any discipline.”
- If there’s one thing unifying the work Astrid Lindgren, it’s her “affection for the defiant self-possession of some children”: “There is a manuscript scholars call the ‘Ur-Pippi,’ the first draft of the Pippi Longstocking stories that Lindgren, then a young mother, wrote in the 1940s. The original Pippi was more truly a classic trickster … In order to tame that Pippi slightly for public consumption, Lindgren’s publisher persuaded her to tone the story down … For example, Pippi actually apologizes to the schoolteacher she has defied and does not, in her madcap rescue of children from a burning building, accidentally-on-purpose smash a chamber pot (as she did in the draft).”
- Fun fact: our Southern editor, John Jeremiah Sullivan, is in a band. They’re called Life of Saturdays. We hadn’t known this until earlier today, when we found a review of their debut album So How We Seem in the Wilmington Star News: “Sullivan’s distinctive vocals, which range from a pretty falsetto to a throaty wail, take center stage on rock anthem ‘American Boy.’ Whether it's about the immaturity of the American male, U.S. imperialism or something else is hard to figure, but nothing can mask the awesomeness of the line, ‘Set my phasers on joy / Because I am an American boy.’”
- Loot, nirvana, pajamas, shampoo, shawl, bungalow, jungle, pundit, thug … how did these and other Indian words come to enter the English language? For clues, look to Hobson-Jobson: The Definitive Glossary of British India, first published in 1886.
June 24, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- In South Korea, there’s a book so sagacious—so steeped in commonsense know-how and philosophical intrigue—that it’s whispered about at every level of society. It’s the Talmud, whose unlikely role in South Korean culture reads like something out of a counterfactual history: “Each Korean family has at least one copy of the Talmud. Korean mothers want to know how so many Jewish people became geniuses … Twenty-three per cent of Nobel Prize winners are Jewish people. Korean women want to know the secret. They found the secret in this book.”
- Fact: book publishers don’t fact-check. According to your average book contract, fact-checking is the author’s problem, and the author’s financial burden, so good luck. But “the status quo might shift a notch this fall, at least for a lucky few. In September, Tim Duggan Books, the editor’s eponymous new imprint under the Crown Publishing Group, will be the first ever to offer fact-checking as a service paid for by the publisher.”
- So you’re cruising west on Interstate 10, shedding the trappings of your old life for a new, free beginning in the American West—congratulations! You’ve undertaken a journey so iconic, and perhaps so hackneyed, that 100 billboards now speckle the highway to commemorate it. The “Manifest Destiny Billboard Project,” which stretches from sea to shining sea, examines “the way we think about aspiration and ambition, achievement and taking. It ties to everything from the capitalist impulse to notions of exploration, and to the desire to know.”
- In the late nineteenth century, Nietzsche’s philosophy found an unexpected (if ambivalent) advocate in George Bernard Shaw: “People read Nietzsche for his philosophy; they go to Shaw’s plays for their comedy … In the absence of God, both were seeking a purpose. There was Nietzsche’s belief in struggle which Shaw acknowledged as necessary for essential improvement; there was also his attack on traditional moral values that acted as a brake on necessary change. He was clever and imaginative and sometimes original. But Shaw was not one of Nietzsche’s ‘brethren’ who is urged to see ‘the rainbow and the bridges of the Superman.’”
- If you were raised Catholic, your writing may well be forever inflected with Catholicism—even if you leave the Church. Don’t worry. It’s not bad … necessarily. “When we tag a writer ‘a Catholic novelist,’ we attribute to him the agenda of the Catholic, and not the aim of the novelist … Blake’s “mind-forged manacles” become faith-forged manacles when the purely imaginative and linguistic motive of the novelist is sullied by the believer’s allegiance to Catholicism. That’s the pinch: Catholics already have the truth, whereas novelists write novels in part because they don’t.”
June 23, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Our Summer issue features an interview with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, “the quiet rebels of Russian translation”—now Literary Hub has the longest excerpt of it you’ll see online. Among its many revelations, you’ll learn of Pevear’s long-hidden talents as a jingle writer: “Who’s that knocking at my door? / His badge is stamped with number four. / His shoulder bag is big and fat. / His coat is blue, so is his hat.”
- Claudia Rankine on black lives and mourning: “In 1955, when Emmett Till’s mutilated and bloated body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River and placed for burial in a nailed-shut pine box, his mother, Mamie Till Mobley, demanded his body be transported from Mississippi, where Till had been visiting relatives, to his home in Chicago. Once the Chicago funeral home received the body, she made a decision that would create a new pathway for how to think about a lynched body. She requested an open coffin and allowed photographs to be taken and published of her dead son’s disfigured body.”
- Tired of all your friends talking about the Enlightenment as if it were the very realization of paradise on earth? So is Vincenzo Ferrone, a historian aiming to puncture the era’s inflated reputation—and to kill a few centaurs along the way: “Every attempt to define an epoch—the age of steam, say, or the age of empire, or the age of the internet—involves making a link between two different registers: on the one hand a specific kind of activity, and on the other a stretch of historical time. As far as Ferrone is concerned, however, the idea of the Enlightenment is unique because it yokes a period not with something real but with a set of ideals: philosophical notions of truth, virtue and knowledge … the Enlightenment is another of [philosophers’] high-flown fictions, and when the historians took it over they had no inkling of the trouble they were getting into. It would prove to be a philosophical Trojan horse, or poisoned chalice, and Ferrone repeatedly denounces it as an ircocervo—a monstrous hybrid of goat and stag, or, as his translator would have it, a ‘centaur.’ He then sets out to ‘break the spell of the centaur’ by documenting the damage it has done.”
- “Maybe Oxford is just full of dull old farts who only vote for the obvious. I don’t think they have anything to be proud of here.” Simon Armitage has been voted Oxford’s new Professor of Poetry, and not everyone is happy about it. (Spoiler alert: some people are actively unhappy about it.) The post dates to the nineteenth century; professors emeritus include W. H. Auden, Robert Graves, and Cecil Day-Lewis.
- Meanwhile, in Italy: no one has yet unmasked Elena Ferrante. She’s a finalist for the Strega Prize, which will be awarded in July—so people really, really, really want to learn who she is.
June 22, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- As an undergraduate at Harvard, T. S. Eliot risked flunking out—but fear not, for his febrile poetic mind was already hard at work: “He invented the characters of ‘Columbo’ and ‘Bolo,’ who for years to come starred in a series of scatological, violent, and racist poems. Circulated privately, these verses became known to a wider readership only after Eliot’s death, when they presented the immensely refined poet in a bizarrely crude light … such writing served a purpose for the shy, physically awkward, and sexually late-blooming Eliot. It was a way for him to bond with his peers … ”
- Advertisements used to contain words—many words—even those aimed at such famously illiterate audiences as rock-music fans. A look at the Rolling Stone archive reveals a surprising amount of po-mo sophistication in record-label copywriting. A 1979 ad for the singer-songwriter Sirani Avedia, for example, begins, “After the chic anarchy of punk, the escapism of disco, and the cerebral celebrations of jazz fusion … something real.”
- An old photograph by Giovanni Gargiolli inspires ruminations on fatherhood: “The photograph was taken outside a Franciscan church in Alatri, a village south of Rome, in 1902 or 1903 … I recognize myself in that father who is leaning out of the family portrait in the church doorway. I feel an apartness, and I wonder: Is it a movable obstacle to the fullness of fatherhood, a primordial paternal taint, or a simple truth about the way men who have children are around their children?”
- Disturbing news from the tech sector: research suggests that our computers, the very beings on which our civilization depends, are no more than drug-addled dreamers, lost in psychedelic reveries every bit as inscrutable as those of your average dusthead. Google discovered what its image-recognition networks “imagine” by “feeding a picture into the network, asking it to recognize a feature of it, and modify the picture to emphasize the feature it recognizes. That modified picture is then fed back into the network, which is again tasked to recognise features and emphasize them, and so on. Eventually, the feedback loop modifies the picture beyond all recognition.”
- Nick Sousanis received his doctorate in education for Unflattening, a dissertation in the form of “a graphic novel about the relationship between words and pictures in literature.” Its lowly ambition? “Insurrection against the fixed viewpoint … Fusing words and images to produce new forms of knowledge.”