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On the Shelf

Telling It Like It Is in Times Square, and Other News

August 29, 2014 | by

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Alfredo Jaar, A Logo for America, 1987/2014. Photo: Ka-Man Tse for Times Square Arts

  • Coming this fall: a host of new books about football. But do they hold up against the venerable backlist of football literature?
  • Today in trepidatious grammatical hairsplitting: whoever versus whomever, and all the complications thereof.
  • On syllabus bloat: “Today’s college syllabus is longer than many of the assignments it allegedly lists … The syllabus now merely exists to ensure a ‘customer experience’ wherein if every box is adequately checked, the end result—a desired grade—is inevitable and demanded, learning be damned.”
  • Every night between 11:57 and midnight, the slogan “This Is Not America” has appeared on a high-definition LED in Times Square—a message from the Chilean conceptual artist Alfredo Jaar, who debuted the work in a decidedly more analog form back in 1987.
  • Science shows that listening to your favorite songs, regardless of their genre, will generate “strikingly similar brain activity patterns” of a sort that can encourage creativity.

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He Killed the Hedgehog, and Other News

August 28, 2014 | by

Philip Larkin.

Philip Larkin. “His letters to girlfriends were full of little drawings, showing them as cute squirrels or bunnies or honey bears.”

  • Philip Larkin: Not always a tremendous admirer of people, but an ardent lover of animals. “His secretary Betty Mackereth remembers how, ‘He just stood at the window of his office, looking out, and said: “I mowed the lawn last night; and I killed the hedgehog.” And tears rolled down his face.’ ”
  • James Meyer, who was for thirty years an assistant of Jasper Johns, has pled guilty to stealing at least twenty-two of Johns’s works—an estimated $6.5 million value. 
  • We live in a world where not one but two new apps promise to re-create “the experience of a manual typewriter, but with the ease and speed of an iPad.”
  • Against Against: “In recent years, there has been an ‘Against [X]’ epidemic: against young-adult literature, against interpretation, against method, against theory, against epistemology, against happiness, against transparency, against ambience, against heterosexuality, against love, against exercise, et cetera. The form announces a polemic—probably a cranky one, and very likely an unfair one. But an essay with such a title has inoculated itself against the criticism of being too polemical or tendentious—after all, did you read the title? Caveat lector!”
  • In Pittsburgh, a nonprofit called City of Asylum provides free housing and a stipend “for foreign-born scribes who endured imprisonment, or worse, in their home countries.”

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The Ultimate Example of Everything, and Other News

August 27, 2014 | by

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John Ashbery at the Brooklyn Book Festival in 2010. Photo: David Shankbone

  • Our poetry editor, Robyn Creswell, on the New Museum’s current show, “Here and Elsewhere”: “So many of today’s iconic images are made in the Middle East … For visual artists working from the region, this surfeit of spectacles poses a challenge. When everyday life—at least as it is experienced via a computer screen—regularly throws up these images of terror and drama and the technological sublime, how can a photographer compete?”
  • Ben Lerner at the Met: “What interests me about fiction … is in part, its flickering edge between realism and where a tear in the fabric of a story lets in some other sort of light.”
  • Things that—according to the students and faculty of the first Ashbery Home School, a new writing conference in Hudson, New York—John Ashbery is “the ultimate example of”: “surrealism, realism, hyperrealism, distance, proximity, translation, tradition, the grotesque, the beautiful, the blind, the all-seeing, the old, the young, the queer, the hetero, the hedgehog, the fox, the human, the alien, the bric-a-brac in the cupboard, the masterpiece on the wall, painting, cinema, architecture, life.” (NB the author of this list describes it as “incomplete and incompetent.”)
  • A brief history of the problem of sorting, classifying, and otherwise categorizing things: “It is tempting to think making categories is a straightforward scientific enterprise, and that debates will be clearly settled once we’ve amassed enough data. But the history of science shows this not to be the case … The nature of scientific categories is not merely an empirical issue; it’s also a philosophical one, and one affected by self-interest and social forces.”
  • Today, in posthumous gifts: more than three thousand of Doris Lessing’s books are to be donated to a public library in Zimbabwe, where she lived for twenty-five years.

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Horseback Balloonist, and Other News

August 26, 2014 | by

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What one did for fun in the eighteenth century. Image via Retronaut

  • Blootered, plonked, fuddled, muckibus: what we talk about when we talk about getting wasted.
  • An interview with Rachel Cusk, whose new novel, Outline, is serialized in The Paris Review: “I’m certain autobiography is increasingly the only form in all the arts. Description, character—these are dead or dying in reality as well as in art.”
  • James Wood on James Kelman: “Kelman’s language is immediately exciting; like a musician, he uses repetition and rhythm to build structures out of short flights and circular meanderings. The working-class Glaswegian author knows exactly how his words will scathe delicate skins; he has a fine sense of attack.”
  • In the UK, literature in translation is enjoying a surge in popularity. “There used to be a feeling translations were ‘good for you’ and not enjoyable … like vegetables … But actually they’re wonderful books.”
  • “Pierre Testu-Brissy was a pioneering French balloonist who achieved fame for making many flights astride animals, particularly horses.”

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A Library Without Books, and Other News

August 25, 2014 | by

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Florida Polytechnic University's new library is bookless. Photo: Rocket Science Photography / Florida Polytechnic University, via the Los Angeles Times

  • We’d all like to believe in untranslatable words. It’s such a romantic thought: that there exist out there, like undiscovered desert islands, ideas we have never even conceived of…” Alas, it isn’t so. Ostensibly untranslatable terms like hyggelig (Danish) or saudade (Portuguese) have plenty of serviceable equivalents.
  • Today in the sad obsolescence of print (or, depending on whom you ask, the ineluctable march of progress): a new library with no books. At a center of higher education, no less.
  • And today in seemingly unobjectionable advice that’s actually terrible, vacuous, entitled, meaningless advice: “Do What You Love” is “the unofficial work mantra of our time … [a] secret handshake of the privileged and a worldview that disguises its elitism as noble self-betterment.”
  • On the literature of Alzheimer’s: “Because the full, internal experience of Alzheimer’s is an account that fiction alone can deliver, it’s no surprise that the go-to book for caretakers and early-stage sufferers is a novel.”
  • “For me, there’s a sure sign I’ll be able to muster the maturity to it takes to make art out of my life: When I’m finally able to laugh at a younger version of myself.”

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Mocha Dick, and Other News

August 22, 2014 | by

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Image: Creative Editions/Randall Enos, via the Atlantic

  • At the Morgan Library and in England, Jane Austen miscellanea abounds: recent years have seen the discovery, exhibition, and/or sale of Austen’s turquoise ring, Austen’s nephew’s memoirs (with her handwriting somewhere among the pages), Austen’s teenage notebooks, fragments of her unfinished novel, a stone shield excavated from a house near her birthplace …
  • “Once a sci-fi plot conceit, time travel has become among the most popular structural devices in contemporary fiction. Today ‘time machine fiction’ reigns supreme.”
  • Before Moby-Dick there was Mocha Dick—not a coffee-chocolate phallus but “a real-life whale … who fought off whalers for decades before being killed by harpoon.” It was a magazine story about Mocha that inspired Melville to write his novel; now, in a new illustrated book, Mocha Dick: The Legend and the Fury, the original whale gets his due.
  • The history of nine terms of endearment, including such perennials as sweetheart (1290) and sugar (1930), but also some deep cuts: mopsy (1582), bawcock (1601), and prawn (1895), the last of which ought to come into vogue again any minute now.
  • A manual for the first computer game—“The Ferranti Nimrod Digital Computer,” dubbed “Faster than Thought”—has sold for $4,200. The computer was designed specifically to play “a match-stick game called Nim that was played in the French movie L’Année Dernière à Marienbad.”

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