The Daily

On the Shelf

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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The Limits of a Language, and Other News

August 21, 2014 | by

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From Fred Benenson’s Emoji Dick.

  • Could writers learn from carpenters? … Writers need to know more about the business of their art … During the days of postal submissions, writers often had to read ‘an issue or two of the publications to which they submitted, mainly due to the fact that that was largely how anyone knew about what journals were out there.’ Now writers unfamiliar with the submission process can sometimes produce ‘absurd results.’ ”
  • Stop. Look around you. Think. Are you in a Balzac novel? Some telltale signs: “There’s a woman you’d like to sleep with, so you decide to tell her an off-putting story about murder, castration, or bestiality … You play a lot of whist … You once tried to have sex with a panther.”
  • As a kind of language, emoji “are the social lubricant smoothing the rough edges of our digital lives: they underscore tone, introduce humor, and give us a quick way to bring personality into otherwise monochrome spaces.” But are they too conservative? “What habits of daily life do emoji promote, from the painted nails to the martini glasses? What behavior do they normalize? … In a broad sense, what emoji are trying to sell us, if not happiness, is a kind of quiescence … Emoji can represent cocktails, paparazzo attacks, and other trappings of Western consumer and celebrity culture with ease. More complicated matters? There’s no emoji for that.”
  • Oops. Now was not a good moment to release a feature film called Let’s Be Cops: “this is our only movie starring law enforcement run amok, at a moment when much of the nation is outraged that actual law enforcement is doing the same.”
  • When a programmer inserted the classic “Lorem Ipsum” placeholder text into Google Translate, he got some strange results. Cue the conspiracy theorists.

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Joyce Recommends the Red, and Other News

August 20, 2014 | by

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“There is jollity.” (Jollity not pictured.)

  • 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.”

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Life After the Bench, and Other News

August 19, 2014 | by

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Garry Winogrand, World’s Fair, New York City, 1964

  • 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.”

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The Erotics of Architecture, and Other News

August 18, 2014 | by

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Dig those curves: the Museu de Arte Contemporânea de Niterói, in Rio de Janeiro. Photo: Rodrigo Soldon

  • 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.

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The Changing Language of Menus, and Other News

August 15, 2014 | by

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Henri Brispot, Gourmand, 1928

  • 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.”

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