On the Shelf
September 8, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- In praise of the footnote1: “Many readers, and perhaps some publishers, seem to view endnotes, indexes, and the like as gratuitous dressing—the literary equivalent of purple kale leaves at the edges of the crudités platter. You put them there to round out and dignify the main text, but they’re too raw to digest, and often stiff … Still, the back matter is not simply a garnish. Indexes open a text up. Notes are often integral to meaning, and, occasionally, they’re beautiful, too.”
- One way of arguing for the necessity of print: “Rather than stand on a street corner yelling, ‘Literature is not commodity!’ I decided to inflict a series of physical experiments on my published work, to take several copies of the new book, go at them with my hands, and see what might result. I stripped the book of its cover, bought a pouch of tobacco, tore the pages, rolled the words.”
- Among the many treasures of the Bodleian Libraries: “A bivalve locket with locks of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s hair. ‘Blessed are the eyes that saw him alive,’ an inscription reads in Latin.”
- “Metaphor is actually a fundamental constituent of language … In the seemingly literal statement ‘He’s out of sight,’ the visual field is metaphorized as a container that holds things … Ordinary language is saturated with metaphors. Our eyes point to where we’re going, so we tend to speak of future time as being ‘ahead’ of us. When things increase, they tend to go up relative to us, so we tend to speak of stocks ‘rising’ instead of getting more expensive.”
- Really, though, if humanity discovered evidence of extraterrestrial life, could we be expected to behave ourselves? “There might be happiness and celebration to mark the end of isolation, or the news might be met with a shrug. But human nature suggests it’s more probable that this discovery triggers a chain of events that lead to utter disaster. Suddenly your safe haven is threatened by an unknown ‘them.’ Your time-tested principles of governance and social order are put under pressure. Gossip, rumor, and conjecture will gnaw away at your stable home.”
1. And the endnote, too.
September 5, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Intellectuals and academics: step up your game! “Social docility, strong convictions of one’s personal impotence, infinite procrastination, plus, one surmises, the regular protestation that people must be able to get on with their proper job—their research and teaching—these excuses and tendencies prevent our noticing that the end of the world is nigh.”
- Art historians have never settled the issue of when Monet’s Impression, Soleil Levant was painted. Now a physicist has used “astronomy, tide tables, weather reports, maps and historical photos to calculate the precise time.” If you’d guessed November 13, 1872, around 7:35 A.M., you’re right!
- “How did we come to care so much about creativity? The language surrounding it, of unleashing, unlocking, awakening, developing, flowing, and so on, makes it sound like an organic and primordial part of ourselves which we must set free—something with which it’s natural to be preoccupied. But it wasn’t always so; people didn’t always care so much about, or even think in terms of, creativity.”
- $$ GET PAID TO READ $$ A new grant “would allow writers to take three months’ leave to read the work of their fellow authors.”
- “Gentlemen, this is no humbug”: how nitrous oxide, which began as a nineteenth-century recreational drug, became anesthesia.
September 4, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Before he made his second “appearance” on The Simpsons in 2004, Thomas Pynchon made a few edits to the teleplay—he crossed out a pejorative line of dialogue about Homer’s ample posterior. “Homer is my role model,” he wrote in the margins, “and I can’t speak ill of him.”
- Walter Benjamin’s “vexed relationship with academia”: “Benjamin could do first-paragraph seduction with a vengeance; yet on the several occasions when certain essays were the key to a prestigious university post—when those powers of seduction would really have worked in his favor—what does he do? He goes in the opposite direction, producing dense thickets of prickly, forbidding verbiage. Today, there isn’t a university press anywhere in the world that wouldn’t kill to get the rights to publish those same contentious, rejected essays.”
- Now that so much of our media is stored in the Cloud, “the tide has turned against the collector of recordings, not to mention the collector of books: what was once known as building a library is now considered hoarding. One is expected to banish all clutter and consume culture in a gleaming, empty room.”
- From If Only He Knew: A Valuable Guide to Knowing, Understanding, and Loving Your Wife, a 1988 Christian relationship guide that seems to presume marriage is a total bummer: “While a man needs little or no preparation for sex, a woman often needs hours of emotional and mental preparation … Comfort her when she is down emotionally. For instance, put your arms around her and silently hold her for a few seconds without lectures or putdowns.”
- In which a Roald Dahl story moves a man to pursue beekeeping, a hobby that teaches us much about the nature of loyalty (and the loyalty of nature).
September 3, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- A previously unpublished chapter of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory—once “deemed too wild, subversive and insufficiently moral for the tender minds of British children”—is now available for your delectation. It features a jaunt into Wonka’s Vanilla Fudge Room, where many wonders and precariously situated heavy machinery await. (Not an OSHA-compliant workplace, that chocolate factory.)
- Get Carter, Ted Lewis’s 1970 crime novel, has just been reissued: “As far as classic hard-boiled fiction, Get Carter is sui generis, the place where British noir begins … there is no attempt to soften or sugarcoat … It is also, as the best noir always is, highly moral, although its morality is individual and distinct. What is important to us?, the book ponders. What do we need—are we willing—to sacrifice?”
- In praise of brevity in fiction: “shorter novels can often be a distillation of everything an author does best—which, in some cases, can spare you quite a lot of their more exacting or punishing work.”
- “In the late 19th century, shortly after the patent of the telephone, the race was on to connect everyone to the phone grid … In Stockholm, Sweden, the central telephone exchange was the Telefontornet, a giant tower designed around 1890 that connected some 5,000 lines which sprawled in every direction across the city. Just by looking at historical photos it’s easy to recognize the absurdity and danger of the whole endeavor … Everything that could possibly go wrong did.”
- Revisiting “latitudes of acceptance,” a social judgment theory from the sixties: “We all have these latitudes around our beliefs, our values, our attitudes, which teams are ok to root for, and so on, and these bubbles move. They flex. When you’re drunk, or when you’ve had a good meal, or when you're with people you care about versus strangers, these bubbles flex and move in different ways. Getting two groups to work together is about trying to get them to a place where their bubbles overlap, not their ideas, not their beliefs, but the bubbles that surround their ideas.”
September 2, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- In the years before John Updike died, a man began to steal a lot of his garbage—thousands of pieces, actually, including “photographs, discarded drafts of stories, canceled checks, White House invitations, Christmas cards, love letters, floppy disks, a Mickey Mouse flip book, and a pair of brown tasseled loafers.” Taken as a whole, the collection amounts to a kind of secret history, a trash biography. (“My life is, in a sense, trash,” Updike said in his Art of Fiction interview.)
- “How does one choose books that one knows one is going to enjoy? The obvious answer is that you can’t … Think of all the times we start a book that we think we should be reading—because everyone else is reading it, because it’s won a prize, because our book group has chosen it, despite our misgivings. And think of all the times we refuse to abandon a book we are not enjoying—because we are peculiarly puritanical about literature—thus creating an antagonism and a reluctance that must damage our relationship with reading.”
- This year’s Venice Biennale, an architecture show, “reveals that modernism was never a style. It was a cultural, political, and social practice: the practice of making buildings suited to certain exigencies of life in a rapidly changing and developing world. And since, by definition, the question of how and what it meant to ‘make something modern’ changed over time and space—different in Finland than in Morocco—so also did the design of the buildings that emerged from it.”
- In which the keening of a single blue whale teaches us something about loneliness.
- What kind of worker is a writer? On Tillie Olsen, who wrote in dribs and drabs while holding down menial jobs and raising four children: “Writing, Olsen reminded her readers, takes time, education, energy, and resources, and these things are unevenly distributed. She encouraged us to attend to unorthodox writing produced in unfavorable circumstances—letters, diaries, scrapbooks like her own—and, in doing so, to question what counts as literature.”
August 29, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- 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.