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On the Shelf

Our Office Plants, Ourselves, and Other News

July 22, 2014 | by

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Polly Brown photographs plants in offices. Photo via The New Yorker; plant also via The New Yorker.

  • Coming soon to the two-euro coin: Tove Jansson’s face. How can you get one? “ ‘Some collectors consider it important to obtain the coin from circulation, but it is easier to purchase the special coin in polished proof quality from numismatic shops or the Mint of Finland online shop,’ says Mint of Finland CEO Paul Gustafsson.”
  • Bertrand Russell: bright guy and all, but was his pacifism really so logically rigorous? “The peace agenda of Russell and his followers was always based on the assumption that war is simply a euphemism for the madness of state-sponsored mass murder, and that we could prevent it by standing up for moral and political sanity … But the paths to war are paved not with malice but with righteous self-certainty. People who choose to participate in military action are more likely to be altruists than egotists.”
  • How should you explain what your novel’s about? Not like this: “This was the story of a young guy, from a town, with a family, with a handful of familiar issues, going back to that town.”
  • The photographer Polly Brown “has spent the past year documenting the plants that bloom in the headquarters of Louis Vuitton, A.T. & T., Nike, Vogue, and even The New Yorker … Brown’s idea was to present the office plant as a representation [of] our ‘biophilic desires.’ ”
  • In 2002, radio producers interviewed “New Yorkers who were among the last—and in some cases, the very last—to hold jobs in industries that were dying … They came up with seven people—a Brooklyn fisherman, a water-tower builder, a cowbell maker, a knife-and-scissor grinder, a lighthouse keeper, an old-fashioned bra fitter, and a seltzer man.” The interviews are now online.

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Knausgaard Truthers, and Other News

July 21, 2014 | by

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Just where does the hype end and the man begin?

  • Fact-checking the Knausgaard craze: Have Norwegian workplaces really instituted “Knausgaard-free days” in response to the success of My Struggle? The people demand the truth!
  • On clichés and their complications: “An expression is much more likely to be regarded as a cliché if it has typical or frequent use in contexts where it doesn’t apply very well (by being imprecise, misleading, or inaccurate, for example). Take the noun phrase best-kept secret … As a few examples will show, things that are dubbed best-kept secrets are in fact often not secret at all, and it is rarely specified, sometimes not even implied, in what sense they are ‘kept.’ ”
  • Remembering James Garner: “Garner wasn’t an actor who ‘reached,’ per se. He wasn’t doing accents or putting on prosthetics or trying to make himself over into someone he wasn’t. Movie and TV producers hired him to be James Garner.”
  • Is Amazon killing writing, or is it the market? “We are witnessing a bad Hollywood remake of a bad Hollywood remake of the Content Wars of the 1990s and 2000s … The plot remains the same: The traditional publishers of content defend their business models against the assault of the Internet. There’s some suspense, and then the Internet wins.”
  • Weird Al’s usage wars: “I purposely left a split infinitive at the end of my song … to be ironic, and also to see how many online grammar pedants it would annoy.” But then he didn’t realize that spastic is a slur in the UK …

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The Oldest Book in English, and Other News

July 18, 2014 | by

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The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye, the oldest printed book in English.

  • Javier Marías can think of seven reasons not to write novels, and only one reason to write them. (Fortunately, the one is pretty good.)
  • A 540-year-old book—the first to be printed in English—has sold at auction for more than a million pounds. “The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye is a version of a French book written around 1463 … The story is an epic romance which portrays the heroes of Greek mythology as chivalric figures.”
  • “I do own a pair of unusual books that I treasure … they are collections of poems, written by Howard Moss, poetry editor of The New Yorker from 1948 to 1987. They originally belonged to the poet May Swenson (1913–1989), who has been a favorite of mine since I stumbled on her “Half Sun, Half Sleep” in high school … Each is heavily underlined, in both pencil and ink—an emphatic, and ugly, green ink, seemingly more suited for some censorious schoolmistress than for Swenson, a nicely calibrated nature poet. Still, I take great pleasure in her scarring underscorings and in her occasional approving check mark or cryptic annotation.”
  • The Supreme Court has refused to hear an “emergency petition” from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s heirs, who are seeking “indefinite copyright protection” for Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
  • In which the novelist Scott Cheshire, an ex–Jehovah’s Witness, visits the Watchtower headquarters in Brooklyn: “I felt like throwing up, so I headed for the men’s room to pull myself together, pressed my face against the cold metal towel dispenser, and fainted.”

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The Decline and Fall of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and Other News

July 17, 2014 | by

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Kirsten Dunst, the original MPDG, in 2005’s Elizabethtown.

  • A new project, “The Archaeology of Reading in Early Modern Europe,” catalogs and digitizes marginalia from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. “These notes reveal a largely unvarnished history of personal reading within the early modern historical moment. They also embody an active tradition of physically mapping and personalizing knowledge upon the printed page.”
  • How will Woody Allen’s latest film fare in light of the allegations leveled against him earlier this year? “Allen dismissed the possibility that lingering outrage could affect the public’s interest in Magic in the Moonlight. ‘No thoughts like that occur to me … They only occur to you guys,’ ” said Allen, who, as coincidence would have it, is referred to as a “major-league fantasist” elsewhere in this piece.
  • Nathan Rabin has apologized for inventing the phrase “Manic Pixie Dream Girl”: “I’m sorry for creating this unstoppable monster. Seven years after I typed that fateful phrase, I’d like to join Kazan and Green in calling for the death of the ‘Patriarchal Lie’ of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope. I would welcome its erasure from public discourse.”
  • The art collector George Costakis devoted his life “to unearthing masterworks of the Russian avant-garde … but his enthusiasm met with obstacles: the difficulty of tracking down the works, the neglect they had suffered, the disbelief of widows (‘What do you see in them?’). In a dacha outside Moscow he found a Constructivist masterpiece being used to close up a window; the owner wouldn’t part with it. He dashed to the city to fetch a piece of plywood the same size, ferried it back to the dacha, and swapped it for the painting.”
  • The history of punk is, above all, the story of the traumatic loss of its elusive essence: that brief moment in time when a new sensibility was beginning to coalesce … Punk died as soon as it ceased being a cult with no name.”

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The Serviceable Prose of Jules Verne, and Other News

July 16, 2014 | by

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An 1884 caricature of Jules Verne from L'Algerie, a magazine.

  • On reading Middlemarch and being twenty-one: “Eliot’s ability to describe people was, in its subtlety and depth and scrupulousness, so many levels above my pay-grade. My own attempts were feeble in comparison. ‘He plays bass and dislikes capitalism and has long hair and an intense look,’ I’d say to a friend in explaining why I liked a certain guy, and the truth was that it was the best I could do.”
  • Jules Verne was unquestionably imaginative: a science-fiction pioneer. And yet … “Verne may be a master of sorts, but he is not a master of high art. A casual reader, even in English translation, can see that Verne’s prose is rarely more than serviceable and that it gets overheated when he presumes to court eloquence … Each of Verne’s heroes is a nonpareil, the most remarkable man in the world—as long as the reader is immersed in his particular story. Only in other Verne novels—and in television commercials for a Mexican beer—can one find his equals.”
  • Dungeons & Dragons has turned forty, and, “for certain writers, especially those raised in the seventies and eighties, all that time spent in basements has paid off. D&D helped jump-start their creative lives.”
  • Archie will die by taking a bullet for his gay friend. “Archie taking the bullet really is a metaphor for acceptance,” Archie Comics publisher and co-CEO Jon Goldwater said, in case you didn’t get it.
  • From Bach to Deadmau5: a prehistory of electronic-music festivals traces their roots to the nineteenth century.

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Cover Your Eyes—Pubes! and Other News

July 15, 2014 | by

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Leena McCall’s Portrait of Ms Ruby May was recently removed from a gallery for its supposedly offensive depiction of pubic hair. Image via Slate

  • Ninety-eight years ago this month, Edith Wharton published Summer, a steamy novella “with a plotline that includes sex outside of wedlock, an unplanned pregnancy, and a truly disturbing relationship between a teenage girl and her guardian.” It was not well reviewed.
  • Nor, apparently, was When Harry Met Sally, which, though it eventually ascended into the rom-com pantheon, was widely dismissed when it came out twenty-five years ago. Terrence Rafferty wrote, “The debate, of course, is too shallow to engage us, but they might have tried providing a little plot … When Harry Met Sally positions itself comfortably in the middle of nowhere and casts knowing directions in all directions.”
  • On Virginia Woolf’s conception of privacy: “Many people accept the idea that each of us has a certain resolute innerness … What interested Woolf was the way that we become aware of that innerness. We come to know it best, she thought, when we’re forced, at moments of exposure, to shield it against the outside world.”
  • Today in prudery: in London, the Society of Women Artists’ annual exhibition featured a portrait by Leena McCall, which depicted—trigger warning!—a bit of pubic hair. But don’t worry! Calm down! The painting was summarily removed because it was “pornographic” and “disgusting.”
  • In the nineties, Prodigy was one of the most successful Internet companies around, an “interactive personal service” that finally went belly-up in 1999, taking with it “the written record of a massive, unique online culture, including millions of messages and tens of thousands of hand-drawn pieces of digital art.” Now one man has recovered some of that early Web culture.

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