On the Shelf
May 29, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Face it, America: ours is a culture that hates clowns. Coulrophobia is real, and it is systemic. But how do its victims feel? “I want respect, and I don’t want respect,” Boswick, a clown from San Francisco, has said. “I want respect for who I am and my résumé and how hard I work, how many classes I’ve taken, and at the same time I think respect for clowning is the dumbest thing in the world. Why would you have respect for clowns? Clowns are the ones who’re making fun of the world. If you respect the clown, the clown’s doing something wrong.”
- Americans don’t give French Canadians much respect, either—and even if most of that can be blamed on Celine Dion, it’s still time to make a change. We might start by reading Raymond Bock’s Atavismes: Histoires, now available in English: “Readers will need to break through its decidedly specific references: the book, a collection of thirteen short stories, makes few concessions to those unfamiliar with the particulars of Quebec culture—a helpful appendix explains joual cursing (in which equivalents of chalice and host are two of the most vile expletives) and French Canadian touchstones such as the Quiet Revolution, les filles du roi, and the folksinger Paul Piché.”
- In which Arthur Conan Doyle experiments with drugs—specifically with gelsemium, a dried rhizome of yellow jasmine: “A thick, black cloud swirled before my eyes, and my mind told me that in this cloud, unseen as yet, but about to spring out upon my appalled senses, lurked all that was vaguely horrible, all that was monstrous and inconceivably wicked in the universe.”
- To look at a list of the most popular headlines on social media is to become deeply sad and afraid: “publications’ sensibilities have conformed to the platforms that send them visitors; their sites have adopted the tone and language of social media; news and entertainment, mixed as ever, now mingle according the demands and preferences of the feeds into which they are deployed.”
- In Europe, fiction is the new reality in the workplace—if you can’t get a job, you can try to get a fake job. “Inside virtual companies, workers rotate through payroll, accounting, advertising and other departments. They also receive virtual salaries to spend within the make-believe economy. Some of the faux companies even hold strikes—a common occurrence in France.”
May 28, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Jonathan Franzen gave his first interview about his new novel Purity yesterday, and even the Associated Press showed up: “Those who left early missed a highlight of the event, a self-described ‘rising sophomore at the University of Connecticut’ telling Franzen that The Corrections was the basis for her project on the ‘depressed male protagonist in post-9/11 literature.’ ‘Say no more,’ answered a surprised, but amused Franzen.”
- John Polidori was Lord Byron’s physician, and they traveled Europe together—no mean task, given the latter’s celebrity, which left the doctor feeling “like a star in the halo of the moon, invisible.” He was often the butt of Byron’s jokes that he began to write a cruel story about him—“The Vampyre,” which “establishes the vampire as we know it … reimagining the feral mud-caked creatures of southeastern European legend as the elegant and magnetic denizens of cosmopolitan assemblies and polite drawing rooms.” One problem: when the story was finally published, it was attributed not to Polidori but to Byron himself.
- Virginia Woolf’s suicide—admittedly one of literary history’s more memorable, in its methods—has come to overshadow her life. Depictions of the author focus almost exclusively on her melancholic side, and Woolf Works, a new ballet, is no different: “What a miserable Woolf it always is! The focus in Woolf Works, The Hours, and Waves alike is on her tragic demise. This limits our view of her as a person—there’s none of the wit, charm and spirit that Woolf, by all accounts, had.”
- Next time you see a commercial for Swiffer, remember the big picture—in the vastness of the cosmos, dust is not our enemy, but our friend. And we have the pictures to prove it. “Dust plays an essential part, not only in the history of life, but in the history of the universe as a whole. Although dust is a very small part of the mass of the universe, it controls the birth and death of stars and the heating and cooling of interstellar gas. Dust is prominent in the Hubble pictures, not only because dust clouds are beautiful, but because dust-clouds are big players in the cosmic drama.”
- When the recession hit in 2008, an eighty-year-old novel, Kanikosen (Crab Cannery Ship), landed on Japan’s best-seller lists. What explains its sudden popularity? Well, it’s a story of the people: a tale of proletarian struggle based on a 1926 mutiny aboard a Japanese fishing ship. “Kanikosen laid bare not only the grueling reality of capitalism, but also the possibility of united resistance by workers.”
May 27, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- You probably haven’t been worrying about John Ashbery, but if you have, don’t—he’s still got it. His new collection, Breezeway, expands the range and influence of what might be called his trash magic; reading his poems “is sometimes unnerving, as though somebody had given you your own garbage back as a gift, cheerfully wrapped. Ashbery is nearly eighty-eight; more than ever, his style is a net for the weirdest linguistic flotsam.”
- The photographer Mary Ellen Mark is dead at seventy-five. She was known for the intimacy of her photographs and for her unflinching choice of subjects: prostitutes, homeless teenagers, mental patients, and heroin addicts. But her earlier goals were more modest: “She had two main ambitions in high school … to become the head cheerleader and to be popular with boys. She succeeded at both.”
- Nothing begets insanity like a bloody revolution—and so the French Revolution seems to have left a preponderance of madness in its wake. The journals of Philippe Pinel, a contemporary French physician, remark on the era’s various delusions, such as “that of the clockmaker, convinced that he had already been guillotined. Somehow the verdict had been reversed, but his head had become confused with others in the basket and he had been given back someone else’s … Pinel staged an intervention, this time by a fellow patient who cheerfully pointed out the absurdity of his delusion. The clockmaker ‘retired confused amid the peals of laughter all around him and never again spoke of his change of head.’”
- This is graduation season, wedding season—and Father’s Day is just around the corner. You need gifts that bespeak of your intense thoughtfulness and generosity. Here’s one: a gold locket containing a strand of Mozart’s hair. Estimated value: twelve thousand euros.
- Reminder: Los Angeles is a complicated place. “Growing up in L.A. taught me that beautiful people get away with practically anything: it is an aesthetocracy. To be beautiful is to transcend, to move through the world frictionlessly, as consistently pleasant as the weather: temperate, no clouds, photo ready … It is possible to become so healthy that you become sick … It’s a paradoxical lifestyle, self-improvement as an ethos. It demands one remain just shy of perfect, leaving some room to improve.”
May 26, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Milan Kundera has a new novel out, his first in a decade—but does anyone care? Kundera’s books epitomize a certain outmoded, chauvinist worldview: “I can’t help feeling that if anything will undermine Kundera’s long-term reputation … it will be his overwhelming androcentrism. I avoid the word misogyny because I don’t think that he hates women, or is consistently hostile to them, but he does seem to see the world from an exclusively male viewpoint, and this does limit what might otherwise have been his limitless achievements as a novelist and essayist.”
- Speaking of androcentric writers: Philip Roth’s much ballyhooed retirement “may well go down in history as one of the literary world’s greatest pranks.” Despite his many claims to have retreated from the public eye, Roth is still as visible as ever, even if he isn’t publishing new novels.
- Dante is still very much a public figure, too, having gone on an international charm offensive to celebrate his seven-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday: “More than a hundred events are planned. These include everything from the minting of a new two-euro coin, embossed with the poet’s profile, to a selfie-con-Dante campaign. (Cardboard cutouts of the poet are being set up in Florence, and visitors are encouraged to post pictures of themselves with them using the hashtag #dante750.)”
- And who knows? A hashtagged selfie with a Dante cutout might be just what you need to recharge your fatigued sense of awe, that emotion most abused by modernity: “You could make the case that our culture today is awe-deprived. Adults spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. Camping trips, picnics and midnight skies are forgone in favor of working weekends and late at night. Attendance at arts events—live music, theater, museums and galleries—has dropped over the years.”
- Don’t blame literature’s avant-garde, though; the state of the contemporary novel suggests that writers are spending more time in museums than ever before. “The avant-garde writers of today aspire to be conceptual artists, and have their novels considered conceptual art. This may be literature’s Duchampian moment. Welcome to the readymade novel.”
May 22, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Today in “Let’s Pretend There’s a Trend”: Are long novels enjoying a day in the sun? There are, after all, many of them being published this year. “People seem to be seeking wholly immersive experiences,” says one publicist. “They’re binge-watching, they’re cooking from scratch, going on ecotours. And there’s no more immersive experience than reading a good long book.” (Publicists for cocaine, LSD, and MDMA could not be reached for comment.)
- Fantasy authors, on the other hand, are advised to stop writing so many long novels. “A deluge of multi-volume epics has been published over recent years, each one in turn hailed as the next Game of Thrones, only to disappear within a few months as disappointed readers found reality didn’t match the hype … Most were by debut novelists, often interesting writers with some good short stories under their belt, pushed far beyond their technical abilities by an industry hungry for instant commercial success.”
- But if there are too many big books, there are also too many big literary festivals—in fact, the festivals are getting too big for their books, even for the big books. “What is the point of book festivals? To see your favorite authors on stage, hear them read from their books and in conversation? Or meet them, queue up to get their signatures in your first editions, and ask them questions?”
- While we’re at it, our data sets are growing too fast, too; this is your periodic reminder that the digital humanities are divisive and arguably counterproductive. The scholars who built Google Ngram “gave a presentation about how the specific year in which a book is set started getting mentioned much more frequently after the French Revolution, and hypothesized that this had something to do with a new sense of time in the modern nation-state. In fact, as a senior professor attending the presentation immediately pointed out, these were just the years when copyrights, including dates of publication, started appearing in the fronts of books.”
- There is, amid this outsize circus of excess, one man who isn’t big enough: the man who shot the artist Chris Burden with a .22-caliber rifle back in 1971. In the name of the humanities, this fellow was “willing to accept the risk that if he missed his target by inches, art could morph into homicide.” He’s an accountant now.
May 21, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Among the titles on Osama bin Laden’s bookshelf: Bloodlines of the Illuminati, Secrets of the Federal Reserve, an Adobe Acrobat manual, Noam Chomsky.
- Archivists at the University of Michigan have found fragments of Orson Welles’s unfinished autobiography; the working title was Confessions of a One-Man Band. This is a watershed moment not just historians of cinema, but for historians of amateur illusionism: “The unfinished memoir … was interspersed with other ‘weird stuff’ … including scripted patter for magic acts that Welles performed.”
- Further proof that your ambitions are too modest and you’ll never amount to anything: “In 1619, at the ripe age of twenty, Gian Lorenzo Bernini set himself the seemingly impossible challenge of carving the human soul in marble … Bernini was precocious, authoritative, and versatile: he had the touch no matter what he put his hand to. He could make limp swags of drapery swirl and throb as if some sort of lifeblood ran through them.”
- You know who else had the touch? Bob Seger, when he wrote “Night Moves,” which took him six months: “We drove over to the Palm restaurant, where Bruce Wendell [Seger’s label’s head of promotions] was having lunch with Paul Drew, who programmed all the RKO Top 40 radio stations in the country … He came out to the car and we played it for him. Two and a half minutes into it, he said, ‘That’s a smash.’ ”
- Tired of visualizing history with the same old boring timelines? Of course you are! Sebastian C. Adams’s Synchronological Chart of Universal History will shift your paradigm. It “outlines the evolution of mankind from Adam and Eve to 1871, the year of its first edition. The original timeline … stretched to twenty-three feet in length and was designed for schoolhouses as a one-stop shop for all of history.”