On the Shelf
July 15, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- 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.
July 14, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Bill Gates’s favorite business book is 1969’s Business Adventures, “twelve classic tales from the worlds of Wall Street and the modern American corporation,” and “it’s easy to see why. Brooks, who wrote for [The New Yorker] for more than thirty years, approached business in an unusual way. He had an eye for the technical details that mattered to insiders, but the sensibility of a broad-minded cultural critic.”
- “If you visit Florence this summer, you may find that ducking into the Palazzo Strozzi to see the remarkable exhibition ‘Pontormo and Rosso Fiorentino: Diverging Paths of Mannerism’ (through July 20) is a great way to dodge the tourist crowds that choke the city’s streets. The works by these two Tuscans, who have good claim to being considered the originators of Mannerism, are as fascinating and problematic as ever. But chances are, if you’re inclined to look at them to discover affinities with art’s future, it’s not Matisse, German Expressionism, or Giacometti you’ll think of first. At least I didn’t—what I saw, for better or worse, was a postmodern Mannerism: the invention of bad taste or, as Clement Greenberg used to call it, kitsch.”
- Talking to Jamie Keenan, a jacket designer: “Turd Theory (one of The Twenty Irrefutable Theories of Cover Design, written by myself and Jon Gray) works on the idea that in a scary world of disorder and chaos people are programmed to seek out repetition and order. So even the worst cover in the world, repeated twenty times in different colors of the rainbow, will get you an award or two.”
- Some of literature’s greatest opening sentences—now in punch-card form.
- Michael Oakeshott was one of the most original philosophers of the twentieth century, but also, his notebooks reveal, one of the strangest: “His response to the modern world was to cultivate an Epicurean gaiety and independence. (He rebuffed politely an approach by Margaret Thatcher, who had it in mind to recommend him as a Companion of Honour.) It was a style of life that combined seemingly antagonistic attitudes: a highly developed aesthetic sensitivity with a tolerance of everyday routine (he was punctilious when acting as chair of his LSE department); a capacity for intense romantic engagement with deep detachment.”
July 11, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Allan Ahlberg, a British author who’s written more than 150 children’s books, declined a lifetime-achievement award (and a nice cash prize) because Amazon sponsors it.
- In the silent-film era, a movie’s typeface was a crucial part of its identity. Now, a type designer in Minneapolis has tried to re-create the font from The Good Bad Man, a Douglas Fairbanks vehicle from 1916. “In 1916 the titles would have been painted or drawn on a smooth surface and then photographed with the motion-picture camera. There were no optical printers in those days, so the titles would literally have been shot by someone hand cranking a motion-picture camera.”
- In Athens, the Caryatid statues (five maidens “among the great divas of ancient Greece”) have emerged from a three-year cleaning with “their original ivory glow.”
- “Movies, if they’re very good, aren’t a conversation; they’re an exaltation, a shuddering of one’s being, something deeply personal yet awesomely vast. That’s what criticism exists to capture. And it’s exactly what’s hard to talk about, what’s embarrassingly rhapsodic, what runs the risk of seeming odd, pretentious, or gaseous at a time of exacting intellectual discourse.”
- A friendly reminder: your brain is on the brink of chaos.
July 10, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- New statistics—the Guardian calls them not “shocking” but “ ‘shocking’ ”—suggest that “the number of authors able to make a living from their writing has plummeted dramatically over the last eight years, and that the average professional author is now making well below the salary required to achieve the minimum acceptable living standard” …
- … So why are authors undervalued? If they’re “reluctant to see what they do as a real job, deserving of a real salary, then who can blame the public for taking advantage of their work? … In the dark old days, the storyteller always had the best place by the campfire. Those days may be gone, but the power of story remains.”
- On palimpsests, digital reading, and erasable books: “To make a kind of loose analogy between a palimpsest and modern technology, computers often use a codec, or program that transfers information from one format into another, and a codec often loses content when moving between formats … What information are we devaluing now?”
- Talking to Richard Linklater about his new movie, Boyhood, which was filmed over twelve years as its lead grew into an adult: “There would be few big moments. Instead, Linklater sought out the small truths of youth: friends lost forever after a move, adult choices children can’t understand, dull shifts at minimum-wage summer jobs. Passivity—not drama—dominates Mason’s days … Linklater admits he’s ‘at war’ with traditional narrative.”
- Who’s the better prognosticator, Isaac Asimov or Tyra Banks?
July 9, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Faulkner and Hemingway had a famously snippy rapport—Will was all like, “He has never been known to use a word that might send a reader to the dictionary,” and Ernie was all like, “If you have to write the longest sentence in the world to give a book distinction, the next thing you should hire Bill Veek [sic] and use midgets”—which makes Faulkner’s one-paragraph review of The Old Man and the Sea all the more surprising in its candor and courteousness. “Time may show it to be the best single piece of any of us, I mean his and my contemporaries.”
- The case for compact discs, which are, at this juncture, the least hip medium in music: “There’s a lot of pressure in our culture right now to essentially imagine CDs out of existence … CDs currently exist in a cultural no-man’s-land recently defined by singer-songwriter Todd Snider as ‘post-hip, pre-retro’—the format is passé, but not so passé that it qualifies for reclamation.”
- “No matter how many buildings, spacecrafts, and sentient robots Michael Bay explodes, the director can’t seem to get any respect.” So why do they perform so well at the box office, and what, exactly, motivates Bay’s style? “This video may at least help his detractors articulate their distaste with a greater degree of specificity.”
- The artist Mark Dorf’s new series, “Axiom and Simulation,” attempts to illustrate how “the human race is constantly recording data and transforming elements of our physical surroundings into abstracted and non-physical calculations.”
- Offices across the land are under the thumb of that insidiously vague dress code, corporate casual. “No one was quite sure what corporate casual meant. We googled it. The gist of every article is that no one knows what corporate casual is.”
July 8, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- The world’s first rhyming dictionary: 1570’s Manipulus Vocabularum. (What rhymes with horseleach? Ouerreache.)
- On writers and neologisms—how does a writer invent a good word? “Successful coinage, like happiness, may be more likely the less you aim directly at it. A writer who is obsessed with creating a popular new word is like a footballer who devotes all his energies to breaking the world record for keepy-uppy rather than playing well for his team. It’s a stunt rather than the real game. When composing Paradise Lost, John Milton probably wasn’t rubbing his hands at the thought of all the people in coming centuries who might borrow his invented term for the place where all the devils dwelt (pandemonium); he was just getting on with the job of writing an immortal poem.”
- A linguist analyzes our use of emoji and emoticons: “He discovered a divide, for instance, between people who include a hyphen to represent a nose in smiley faces— :-) —and people who use the shorter version without the hyphen. ‘The nose is associated with conventionality’ … People using a nose also tend to ‘spell words out completely. They use fewer abbreviations.’”
- The triumphant return of interactive fiction and “text adventures.”
- The Reading Rainbow app is a sign of the times: “In the television version, a soothing voice read books to viewers as illustrations drifted across the screen like fish in an aquarium … The Reading Rainbow tablet app is busier.”