On the Shelf
September 23, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- What not to do during Banned Books Week: ban seven books. After a tense board meeting, a high school in Highland Park, Texas, has demanded its students stop reading The Art of Racing in the Rain, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, Siddhartha, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, An Abundance of Katherines, The Glass Castle: A Memoir, and Song of Solomon. “Parents and grandparents brought books flagged with sticky notes. They read excerpts of sex scenes, references to homosexuality, a description of a girl’s abduction, and a passage that criticized capitalism.” (Most of which you can find in a given issue of The Paris Review—lock up your daughters.)
- Relatedly: What is censorship? “To dismiss censorship as crude repression by ignorant bureaucrats is to get it wrong. Although it varied enormously, it usually was a complex process that required talent and training and that extended deep into the social order. It also could be positive. The approbations of the French censors testified to the excellence of the books deemed worthy of a royal privilege. They often resemble promotional blurbs on the back of the dust jackets on books today.”
- Things from which invisible ink has been made, through the ages: “The milk of figs, cows and nuts; lemon juice, orange juice and onion juice; saliva, urine, blood, vinegar, aspirin, and laxatives.” Oh, and a dormouse’s corpse … oh, and the display codes embedded in porn images …
- Talking to Emmanuel Carrère—“the most important French writer you’ve never heard of,” unless you’ve read the Art of Nonfiction No. 5—about his new book Limonov, which comes out next month: “In the manner of Truman Capote … Carrère has waited, with the patience of a deer hunter, for the true story that would not only illuminate aspects of his own life, but also exemplify the puzzle of the post–cold war west.”
- “The internet gives us everything that writing does not: it gives us what we dream about when sitting alone at our desks: contact with our tribe and the sense that we’re in a community … The internet reminds me of smoking—which I gave up almost twenty-seven years ago—but whenever someone talked about cancer or heart disease it made me want to light up.”
September 22, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- It’s Banned Books Week. Read something that some prudish bureaucrat condemned as mind-polluting trash. The options are nearly endless …
- Woolf v. Wharton: “Critics exalted Dalloway as an important advance in literature. In the Saturday Review, the critic Gerald Bullett unfavorably compared Wharton’s latest, A Mother’s Recompense, with Mrs. Dalloway, calling Woolf ‘a brilliant experimentalist,’ while Wharton was ‘content to practice the craft of fiction without attempting to enlarge its technical scope.’ ” Wharton was stung by the slight, and disapproved of modernist experimentalism—but it may have goaded her into attempting a “stunning narrative maneuver” in The Age of Innocence.
- Among Nabokov’s “menagerie” of pet names for Véra: Gooseykins, Pussykins, Monkeykins.
- Graham Greene’s 1952 open letter to Charlie Chaplin, defending him against trumped-up charges from the House Committee on Un-American Activities: “I suggested that Charlie should make one more appearance on the screen … He is summoned from obscurity to answer for his past before the Un-American Activities Committee at Washington—for that dubious occasion in a boxing ring, on the ice-skating rink, for mistaking that Senator’s bald head for a rice pudding, for all the hidden significance of the dance with the bread rolls … at the close of the hearing Charlie could surely admit to being in truth un-American and produce the passport of another country, a country which, lying rather closer to danger, is free from the ugly manifestations of fear.”
- Doomsday for NYC pay phones: “Next month in New York City, a contract will expire that requires the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications (DoITT) to maintain the city’s 8,000 remaining pay phones.”
September 19, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Why is our vice president quoting Thomas Pynchon? In a speech in Des Moines, Joe Biden expounded on this bit of vintage paranoia, from Gravity’s Rainbow: “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about answers.”
- James Boswell had more hobbies than just following around Samuel Johnson; he was also “an inveterate execution goer in an age when such activity was considered prurient for a gentleman … Boswell diligently noted the names and crimes of the condemned: robbery, theft, escaping a prison hulk, forgery and murder. He describes a brother and sister convicted of burglary who met their deaths holding hands, only to be separated when they were cut down from the gallows.” He attended at least twenty-one executions, though they gave him nightmares and depressed him. The best hobbies (e.g., writing) often do.
- At a recent school-board meeting in Murphy, Oregon: fuddy-duddies. “Some parents complained Tuesday night that students should not be allowed to read the book Persepolis without parental approval. The novel by Marjane Satrapi contains coarse language and scenes of torture, and it’s in high school libraries within the Three Rivers School District in southwest Oregon.” (“I’m boiling mad,” one parent said.)
- The world’s oldest joke book, the Philogelos, dates to maybe the fourth century AD—but are its jokes funny today? The Internet has delivered its unassailable verdict: “kind of, sometimes.”
- I’ve mentioned the Write a House project in this space before: it offers authors lifelong residencies in Detroit by renovating vacant homes and then simply giving them to writers. Now the first winner has been announced: the poet Casey Rocheteau, from Brooklyn.
September 18, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- John Jeremiah Sullivan on Donald Antrim and his new collection of short stories, The Emerald Light in the Air: “That last story [‘The Emerald Light’] does something special, something very quiet that demands extremely close brushwork, something that exceedingly few writers can do … The technique is one of illusion and happens at the level of the text itself. It’s a way of rendering permeable the surface lens that divides the underworld of fantasy from the ‘painful realism’ hovering above it, so that writer and reader at moments seem joined in not being totally certain whether what’s happening on the page should be taken literally and naturalistically or as mythical, otherworldly.”
- “It is almost unheard-of for the same writer to have a byline on the lead item in rival newspapers. But it has happened in Britain today—to a man who last picked up his pen in 1796.” (Hint: think New Year’s Eve.)
- Apple’s iOS 8 includes QuickType, a predictive typing feature that suggests words you might want to type next. Followed to its extremes, it takes one’s sentences to strange and arguably poetic lands: “I have a great way of saying the government has ordered a pizza./ Yes, you do that for the rest of the day before I go to sleep.”
- Ben Lerner and Ariana Reines in conversation: “For me, the cow is a real modernist figure. I feel like after God died, the cow became the onlooker in great works of modernism. It’s the witness in Joyce, it shows up again and again—for me, it’s like the residue of the divine in the twentieth century.”
- In the eighties, Michael Chabon had a punk band in Pittsburgh. They were called the Bats. One of his bandmates said, “I just remembered being very impressed with his stage presence, like he’d been waiting all his life to do this.”
September 17, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” is all well and good as a witty rejoinder—but in all honesty, which of the women in Flaubert’s life was the real Madame Bovary?
- At a Jane Austen festival in Bath, 550 people claimed the world record for “the largest gathering of people dressed in Regency costume.”
- On “reading insecurity,” the newest existential disease: “the subjective experience of thinking that you’re not getting as much from reading as you used to. It is setting aside an hour for that new book … and spending it instead on Facebook.”
- Among Stephen King’s “most hated expressions”: many people, some people say, and YOLO. (I agree with the first two, but I’ll go to the mat for YOLO any day of the week.)
- What’s it like to translate a compendium of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s sadistic fantasies? Haunting, but, you know, in a good way: “As translator, I am a filter for material: it travels through me. As such, there’s a residue, but it is difficult to qualify. At best, you might compare the book’s effect on me to its effect on any reader: certain images—many, in fact—remain in you, and surge forth unbidden, superimposing themselves in your mind’s eye on perfectly anodyne and serene scenes of everyday life.”
September 16, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- The National Book Awards have published this year’s poetry longlist: Louise Glück, Edward Hirsch, and Fanny Howe are among the ten nominees.
- Technology was supposed to increase our leisure time and enliven our workplaces—that hasn’t really panned out. But in the early eighties, amid all the Pollyannaism of the Bay Area, a magazine called Processed World seemed to foresee all the resentments of the contemporary office drone. “In the writing … one can also find the beginnings of today’s revolt against Silicon Valley and its pernicious mix of libertarian economics, techno-utopianism, and the deracinated remains of the sixties counterculture.”
- “Fingerprint words”: the words and phrases we overuse to the point that they become our personal trademarks. (Mine are probably foresee, edify, and floccinaucinihilipilification.) The strangest thing about these words is that they’re contagious: “We’re all simultaneously donating to and stealing from those around us. But how do we pick up these linguistic signature words, and what is going on when we notice other people using those words and we feel, well, a certain way about it?”
- Writers seeking peace, quiet, and old-fashioned American bonhomie: Washington, D.C.’s Politics & Prose is renting a cottage in Ashland, Virginia—a town where “people wave at you from their front porch”—for weeklong retreats.
- On the performative paintings of Avery Singer: “The gentle sarcasm embedded in her work is usually aimed at art-world stereotypes. Her first solo exhibition at Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler in Berlin last year, for example, was a satiric take on the art industry and its conventions. Works with titles such as The Studio Visit (2012), Jewish Artist and Patron (2012) and The Great Muses (2013) play on myths around the romantic figure of the artist. The show was accompanied by a short text by Singer, a fake press release for an exhibition that will never happen.”