On the Shelf
March 18, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Ian Frazier on Steaming to the North, a new book of photographs that “provides another of the poignant rear-view-mirror visions of ourselves and our environment in which Americans specialize.” The book charts the journey of “the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear, a 198-foot, reinforced-hull vessel powered by both steam and sail.” The Bear patrolled the seas of Alaska circa 1886, when it was a new American territory. These photos of it were “rediscovered in the 1970s under a porch in New Hampshire.”
- Cicero may have been a master orator—but no rhetoric could rescue his lame advice for how to spend your twilight years. “He comes over as a humorless and self-satisfied bore when he writes that ‘the fruit of old age is the remembering and amassing of fine accomplishments’ … Besides being unduly platitudinous, it makes generally for unhappy reading … Apart from sitting on the sofa thinking smugly about all your great achievements, Cicero recommends taking up agriculture.”
- Last week we featured Ron Arad’s crushed cars. Now there’s a video that demonstrates how he crushes them, exactly. (Spoiler: it involves force.)
- Geoff Dyer on Raymond Williams, “a hero of the 1968 generation”: “Williams’s legacy and influence, which had once seemed assured, have gradually shrunk … it is necessary to do two things that might appear contradictory: to concede that, with the exception of Border Country, the fiction to which he devoted so much energy was dull; and to free the rest of his work from the once-modish tundra of cultural studies, let alone the pack ice of theory. Perhaps then he will be read with the same passion and adoration that still attends the discovery of John Berger.”
- On the intellectual character (or lack thereof) of conspiracy theorists: “The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the U.S. legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal … this is fundamentally a question of the way they are.”
March 17, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Chicago’s Goodman Theater is mounting a five-hour adaptation of Bolaño’s 2666. The production is underwritten by a grant from “an actor and stage manager turned Episcopal monk who pledged last year to give away much of his $153 million Powerball jackpot” to support the arts.
- Are you tired of suffering through novels rife with profanity and cussing? Try Clean Reader, “the only e-reader that gives you the power to hide swear words”—it’ll change bastard to jerk, damn to darn, and presumably render most David Mamet plays unreadable. And here’s a winning slice of the Clean Reader philosophy: “Will some authors be offended that some of their consumers use Clean Reader to pick out most of the profanity in their books? Perhaps. Should the reader feel bad about it? Nope. They’ve paid good money for the book, they can consume it how they want.”
- For the literary critic F. R. Leavis—who was, by the time of his death in 1978, totally out of fashion—great books were judgments about life, and “when a great novel or poem is used to support some generalization about culture, the qualities which make it worth reading tend to be ignored.” Leavis abstained, dogmatically, from the pleasures of pop: “Leavis declined ‘intellectual slumming’ of any sort. If he got winded, he put Schubert on the gramophone or read a neglected classic.”
- How music hijacks our sense of time: “In 2004, the Royal Automobile Club Foundation for Motoring deemed Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyrie the most dangerous music to listen to while driving. It is not so much the distraction, but the substitution of the frenzied tempo of the music that challenges drivers’ normal sense of speed—and the objective cue of the speedometer—and causes them to speed.”
- On getting a start as a critic: “I drew on a quality—a resource, a tool—that is very dear to me, and, I’d venture to say, very dear to most people who write reviews: arrogance … There’s good arrogance, too, just like there’s good cholesterol: arrogance that bolsters you, that allows you to feel that your judgment might be sound, that it might—and this is when the reviewer’s mind starts warming up, starts humming—be even better than sound.”
March 16, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- On SimCity and the value of games that dared to make complex systems their protagonists: “SimCity is a game about urban societies, about the relationship between land value, pollution, industry, taxation, growth, and other factors … the game got us all to think about the relationships that make a city run, succeed, and decay, and in so doing to rise above our individual interests, even if only for a moment. This was a radical way of thinking about video games: as non-fictions about complex systems bigger than ourselves. It changed games forever—or it could have … ”
- Philip Roth’s misogyny is treated as a given these days; “the women are monstrous because for Philip Roth women are monstrous,” Vivian Gornick once wrote. But: “Maybe Philip Roth loves women? Maybe he, who offers a three-page description of female masturbation, is in fact an advocate for female desire? … While misogynists try to shame women, Roth celebrates women’s sexual power. It’s the men he is out to get.”
- “That sentence is shit. It’s got to be better. You asshole.” Matt Sumell on writing and doubt.
- Today in German words that dearly need English equivalents: verschlimmbessert, which can be roughly translated as “ ‘ver-worsebettered.’ In essence, it’s a combination of verbessern (‘to improve’) and verschlimmern (‘to make worse’). Here, then, is a verb that is able to express the idea of something simultaneously improving and worsening.”
- In which Benjamin Percy attends the dreadfully named Man Camp and enjoys a surprisingly rousing encounter with masculinity: “When men get together, they tend to speak with irony or rough-throated braggadocio, but [here] there was an uncommon sincerity to everyone’s tone. It caught me off guard.”
March 13, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- “Can a writer’s original inspiration survive success? Imagine you are Karl Ove Knausgaard at this point in his career … Why not enjoy success? Why not accept that you are a genius, if people insistently tell you that you are? One way or another, from this point on it will be hard to achieve the same concentration, the same innocence, when you return to the empty page and the next stage in a life story that is now radically transformed.”
- Today in dubious superlatives: Was 1925 really “the greatest year” in the history of literature? The BBC has declared it so. They searched “for a cluster of landmark books” and then asked if said books “continue to enthrall readers and explore our human dilemmas and joys in memorable ways”; 1925, with its Hemingway and its Fitzgerald and its Dos Passos and its Dreiser, came away the victor. But make no mistake: seeking the greatest year in literature is a fool’s errand, just as searching for the greatest minute in history would be.
- Sam Simon, who died this month, is responsible for much of the greatness of golden-age Simpsons episodes, though his collaborations with Matt Groening weren’t always smooth: “It was Simon’s insight that animation allowed The Simpsons to sprawl across a vast canvas, illustrating new locations and inventing characters through the multifold voice talents of the cast. The Springfield the Simpsons inhabit is a mini-world on to itself, with its own rich mythology and history.”
- The science behind “wordnesia,” a “common brain glitch” in which you can’t spell the simplest words and common language has a sheen of unfamiliarity to it: “Russell Epstein, a cognitive neuroscientist and psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania … posits that these experiences may be linked to concepts described by psychologist William James … [who] contended that our conscious experiences are made up of components he referred to as the nucleus and the fringe.”
- On the criticism of Bernard Williams: “Williams says that philosophers have typically been motivated by two things: curiosity, and the desire to be helpful. He unhesitatingly gives priority to the former motive … Above all, philosophy offers reflective analysis of our concepts, and, through these and a study of their history, insight into who ‘we’ are. If philosophy is to contribute anything distinctive, however, all this must be carried out with clarity and rigor, and the aim of ‘getting it right’ must ‘be in place.’ ”
- Barbara Wildenboer’s sculptures meld the sprawl of a nervous system to the spines of books.
March 12, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Frei Otto, the German architect whose tensile, tent-like constructions were marvels of structural engineering, has died at eighty-nine. He designed his bubbles, webs, and wings to use as few materials as possible; they challenged conventions of durability and permanence. “Why should we build very large spaces when they are not necessary?” he once asked. “We can build houses which are two or three kilometers high and we can design halls spanning several kilometers and covering a whole city—but we have to ask, What does it really make? What does society really need?”
- Tim Youd’s project to retype all of Lucky Jim, mentioned here yesterday, is an act of intellectual lunacy lifted straight from the pages of Borges—in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Borges tells of a man who aspires to rewrite all of Cervantes’s masterpiece line-by-line by inhabiting the depths of its author’s soul: “The initial method that he imagined was relatively simple. Get to know Spanish well, recover his Catholic faith, fight against the Moors or against the Turk, forget the history of Europe between 1602 and 1918, be Miguel de Cervantes. Pierre Menard studied this procedure … but dismissed it as too easy.”
- “A well-traveled branch of futuristic fiction explores worlds in which artificial creatures—the robots—live among us, sometimes even indistinguishable from us … Take Twitter. Or the Twitterverse. Twittersphere. You may think it’s a stretch to call this a ‘world,’ but in many ways it has become a toy universe, populated by millions, most of whom resemble humans and may even, in their day jobs, be. But increasing numbers of Twitterers don’t even pretend to be human.” James Gleick on the gradual, mediocre rise of Twitter bots, which have introduced a kind of artificial intelligence that almost no one is in awe of: “this is how the future really happens, so ordinary that we scarcely notice.”
- On academe’s willful ignorance of African literature: “As long as critics and publishers frame African literature as always on the cusp, it will continue to be an emerging literature whose emergence is infinitely deferred. It will remain utopian, just out of reach. It’s long past time to get over this narrative. Its function is, simply, to excuse and legitimize the ignorance of those who have chosen to ignore African literature.”
- On December 4, 1891, America had what’s believed to be its first suicide bombing. Its target was Russell Sage, a financier who “reportedly had more ready cash at his disposal than any other person in the U.S. What nobody yet understood—except for the unfortunate occupants of the financier’s wrecked office—was that a crazed man had just targeted Sage for attack. Even though Sage survived it, the assault had an effect that the assailant never intended: a remarkable redistribution of the vast riches of one of the most notorious robber barons of the Gilded Age.”
March 11, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- The artist Tim Youd is retyping Lucky Jim, word by painstaking word, in public at the University of Leicester, on an Adler Universal typewriter—the same model Kingsley Amis used. “I’ve read everything before I retype it, so the suspense is gone. The appreciation happens on a deeper level. I get to examine the structure, the style in the course of the most active form of reading … At its heart, the performance is a devotional exercise. It is an extreme, perhaps slightly absurd dedication to the author’s words.”
- Post-Internet poetry takes for granted that the Web, as a medium, can inspire and inform a poem—it doesn’t make a show, that is, of turning the poet into a kind of DJ, “weaving together samples of preexisting language into something unique. Of course, this is nothing new. The cento—snagging lines from other poems to make your own—has been around for nearly two millennia. But what’s new is [the] use of Google as an oracle, the results from which are strained through [one’s] own subjectivity, leading to poems that are at once organic and mechanical, personal and, in a sense, objective.”
- “More than 300 million people live here, and they had descended over the course of a very few generations from a huge number of disparate cultures, with different histories, ways of behavior, worldviews, and experiential backgrounds. All of them, sooner or later, had been required to relinquish their old culture and enter the new one. That must be why the most striking thing about the United States was its sameness … And that must be why every American movie was made after the same template and why, in this sense, every movie expressed the same thing. And that must be why all these TVs were hanging on the walls, unwatched; they created an immediate sense of belonging, a feeling of home.” Knausgaard’s travels in America continue.
- Kristin Dombek on Kim Gordon and Sonic Youth: “Sonic Youth turned the war of sound into a war on the reproducibility of music for consumption, and the failure to create the perfect rock product into music itself … Since guys liked Sonic Youth, learning to like them had seemed like a way to borrow a little male bonding, like wearing flannel, skipping class to drop acid, or fumbling my way through a hacky sack circle.”
- Don’t pretend you don’t care about the sociology of flatulence. “Heterosexual men were the most likely to think it was funny and the most likely to engage in ‘intentional flatulence’ ... Heterosexual women felt like they were violating gender norms if their farts were stinky: ‘The worse it stinks,’ said one, ‘the nastier they think I am.’ ”