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The World Just Wasn’t Ready, and Other News

December 11, 2014 | by

webvan mark coggins

Rest in peace, WebVan. Photo: Mark Coggins, via Flickr

  • Tim Parks was dismayed to find that his students were so enthralled by “the printed word and an aura of literariness” that they’d miss obvious absurdities in what they were reading. His advice? “Always read with a pen in your hands, not beside you on the table, but actually in your hand, ready, armed. And always make three or four comments on every page, at least one critical, even aggressive. Put a question mark by everything you find suspect. Underline anything you really appreciate. Feel free to write ‘splendid,’ but also, ‘I don’t believe a word of it.’ And even ‘bullshit.’ ”
  • On a similar note, Oxonians are obsessed with finding marginalia in their library books: on Facebook, the Oxford University Marginalia group “now has two thousand five hundred and three members, making marginalia to Oxford something like what a cappella is to Princeton. ‘The Oxford libraries are still heavily used, and the curriculum remains relatively stable, so you have so many students reading the same texts’ … ‘The books are thrashed, basically.’ ”
  • Not many people are managing to slog through literary best sellers, experts say: “A study has shown the most downloaded ebooks of the year were not necessarily ever finished by hopeful readers.” Just 44 percent of readers made it through The Goldfinch, and 28 percent got through Twelve Years a Slave.
  • Crummy computer news, part one: they’re better at flirting than we are. “Women were okay, able to judge with 62 percent accuracy when a man was flirting with them. Men were worse, accurately guessing that a woman was flirting just 56 percent of the time. The Stanford guys’ flirtation-detection system, in comparison, was able to correctly judge flirting with 71 percent accuracy.”
  • Crummy computer news, part two: all the seemingly horrendous dot-com ideas of the nineties were actually pretty decent. Remember WebVan? No? They wanted to use the Internet to deliver fresh groceries to your door—just as dozens of profitable companies are doing today.

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The Year in Review (and in Orbit), and Other News

December 10, 2014 | by

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The Cocos Fire, San Diego County, May 15, captured by a DigitalGlobe satellite. Image via Slate

  • “Time and again we hear about a new desire for the real, about a realism which is realistic set against an avant-garde which isn’t, and so on … It seems to me meaningless, or at least unproductive, to discuss such things unless, to borrow a formulation from the ‘realist’ writer Raymond Carver, we first ask what we talk about when we talk about the real. Perhaps we should have another look at the terms ‘the real,’ ‘reality’ and ‘realism.’ ”
  • On David Lynch’s paintings and drawings: “Lynch has long been the American director with the most direct pipeline to his unconscious—his graphic work suggests the doodles of an extravagantly disturbed child … The implied or explicit subject of these paintings is often arson, rape, or murder, but in Lynch’s work, merely existing is a violent affair.”
  • The year in satellite images: snapshots from DigitalGlobe’s WorldView-2 and WorldView-3 satellites captured erupting volcanoes, protests, melting glaciers, music festivals, and, most chillingly, wildfires—from 480 miles up, a landscape on fire looks more like it’s covered in blood.
  • Slava Polunin is Russia’s “best-known artistic clown,” and now he’s taking his act on the road. “His reaction to events, he insists, is best seen in his portrayal of the human condition … He thinks Samuel Beckett ‘had the human condition about right, but there is no need to be miserable about that.’ Audiences watch a mime character preparing for suicide with a noose—and end up cheering a finale involving a ticker-tape storm and giant colored balls, against a haunting, electronic soundscape.”
  • “In a poll conducted by Variety in August, the five most influential celebrities among Americans age thirteen to eighteen were all YouTube stars. Ryan Higa, KSI, Smosh, Jenna Marbles, and other YouTubers with equally absurd names were all more popular than notable old person Leonardo DiCaprio. The highest-ranking movie star, Jennifer Lawrence, lagged well behind someone named PewDiePie, a Swedish twenty-five-year-old who films himself cracking jokes while playing video games. His videos have been seen more than 6.5 billion times, making his the most viewed channel of all time—bigger than Beyoncé, bigger than Bieber.”

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Now in Fabulous 4-D, and Other News

December 9, 2014 | by

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An audience watching a 3-D “stereoscopic film” in 1951. Photo: UK National Archive

  • On the letters of T. S. Eliot: “Despite having spent years wanting to know more about Eliot, I find the prospect of his complete correspondence—of which there are three-and-a-half decades still to go—boring beyond tears … the diplomatic mass of rejection slips and luncheon appointments … [the] deadening epic of polite notes.”
  • There’s no stopping the future, and the future is 4-D movies, which integrate wind, rain, scents, motion, and bubbles into the film-going experience, making it all the more immersive—arguably immersive to a fault. “If you take issue with your seat’s lilts, jolts, and prods (or having air blasted into your ear), you’re sadly out of luck. Aggressive warning labels caution you against placing lidless beverages in your cup holder lest your Sprite end up in your lap. Hot drinks are forbidden for obvious reasons.”
  • Are you tired of referring to December 16 as “Jane Austen’s birthday”? Doesn’t have a very nice ring to it, right? It would be so much easier simply to call it Jane Austen Day, which is what the Jane Austen Centre proposes you do. Go ahead.
  • Syntactically dubious headline of the day: BLINDFOLD SEX KNIFE ATTACK EX-WIFE JAILED FOR MURDER ATTEMPT.
  • “If the snow on the roof melts off, the next storm will be rain. If it blows off, you can calculate on snow. The day of the month on which the first snowstorm comes gives the number of storms you can expect in the following winter.” New Englanders have plenty of gloriously unfounded lore about snow.

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Crop Circles (Not That Kind), and Other News

December 8, 2014 | by

Pivotal-2

Kendall McMinimy, Pivotal 2, 2013, acrylic, toner, and panel, 36" x 36" x 1". Image via Wired

  • “At moments like these prose is a brick through the poet’s window. The fate of the poet is to ignore the broken window and make good use of the brick, and of the draft.” Rowan Ricardo Phillips on being a poet.
  • Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye is enjoying a “cinematic convergence” in New York: “Altman’s comic, poetic, wacked-out adaptation of the Raymond Chandler detective novel will play at three of the city’s leading rep houses—the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Museum of Modern Art, and Film Forum—in a stretch of eighteen days.”
  • Lydia Davis interviews Dan Gunn, one of the editors of Samuel Beckett’s collected letters: “One of the questions in transforming rapidly produced handwriting into print is what to do with anomalies. Is it useful or interesting to show where Beckett makes typos, or where he crosses something out and amends it? Is it worthwhile to show where he misspells a name (as he regularly does, for instance, when he adds a circumflex to the second ‘e’ in the surname of Jean Genet), or confuses a French transliteration of a Russian name with an English one?”
  • The New Republic as we know it is dead—and everyone, suddenly, has an unshakably strong opinion about it. “[This] sort of response to the end of the old TNRthe reductive shouting, the polarized tribes, the narcissism of small differences in the progressive media world—provides perhaps the best reason to mourn what TNR once represented.”
  • Center-pivot irrigation systems: bad for the planet, good for abstract art.

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The Quick and Easy Way to Become a Pig, and Other News

December 5, 2014 | by

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“Between Two Evils,” from Puck magazine, 1888.

  • “The kinds of books we’ve decided to ‘note’ have changed over time, and so have the books that loom largest in our imaginations or that we urge on our friends, even if similar books have been around all along. In other words, it may be the readers who have changed as much as (if not more than) the titles made available to us.” A history of the New York Times Notable Book list …
  • … and a history of humankind’s antipathy for drunkards—specifically their drunk, decaying bodies. “To [Edward] Bury, the most comparable creature to the drunkard was the swine, as drunkards seemed to take great pleasure in wallowing in their own vomit, dung, and the dirt. Drunkards even came to resemble swine by crawling about, after losing control over their ability to walk; though, while beasts are serviceable in this manner, Bury remarked, ‘the Drunkard [is] good for nothing but to spend and consume.’ ”
  • There are Mayakovsky Streets in forty-five Russian cities and fourteen Ukrainian cities. There are three Mayakovsky Streets in St Petersburg, more than there are in the whole of Kazakhstan, which boasts only a couple, one in Almaty and one in Ust-Kamenogorsk. Triumph Square in Moscow was called Mayakovsky Square from 1935 to 1992; the metro station that serves it is still called Mayakovsky. Omsk seems particularly fond of the poet: as well as a street, it has a cinema and a nightclub (or rather a ‘youth relaxation complex,’ which I hope is a nightclub) blessed with the great man’s name.”
  • Want a way of predicting if a new word will become a fixture of the language or simply fade away? Use the FUDGE system (Frequency of use; Unobtrusiveness; Diversity of users and uses; Generation of other forms and meanings; Endurance of the concept).
  • Pantone’s color of the year is Marsala, “a reddish-brown shade that’s not quite as bright as Adobe clay but not as deep as brick … slightly more pink than your basic brown.”

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“We Want You to Eat More Pies,” and Other News

December 4, 2014 | by

orwellwigan

The Orwell in Wigan, a town in Lancashire.

  • In the sixty-five years since Orwell’s death, his reputation has only grown, spawning a cottage industry for Orwell tourism. “The strangest place associated with Orwell is Wigan, the town in Lancashire where he stayed in February 1936 … one of the warehouses by the canal, opposite National Tyres and Autocare, has been converted into The Orwell, which offers weddings and civil ceremonies from £900. The local specialty is meat pies. Outside the pub a poster shows Uncle Sam holding out a pie, with the slightly Big Brotherish message: ‘We want you to eat more pies.’ ”
  • “Adrift on warm currents, no longer of this world, she became aware of him gliding into her … The universe was in her and with each movement it unfolded to her. Somewhere in the night a stray rocket went off.” The long-awaited winner of this year’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award.
  • A bunch of prominent scholars are bickering about the possibility that Shakespeare was gay. “Such figments of the critic’s imagination not only produce quantities of waste paper but … are inimical to the proper reading of poetry,” one wrote.
  • And while we’re being litigious: the Maurice Sendak estate is embroiled in a debate about his will, which stipulates that his house in Ridgefield, Connecticut—where, two years after his death, his slippers still sit next to his bed—become a study center and museum. “I really don’t know who’s going to go there,” his longtime British editor said. “It’s in the middle of nowhere.”
  • A new book of photographs “reveals the British West Indian experience of death in all its pathos, occasional comedy, and life-affirming sense of the funeral as essentially a fun-for-all … In [Charlie] Phillips’s moving and often beautiful images, dating from 1962 to the present, the bereaved are seen to face the mystery of the end of life in stush black suits, spidery hat veils, Rastafari head-ties, spiffy trilbies and strictly-come-dancehall white socks.”

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