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Thinking Hurts, and Other News

October 14, 2014 | by

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George Cruikshank, The Head Ache, 1818.

  • Flannery O’Connor on a 1957 television adaptation of her story “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”: “Well, I have seen the production and I thought it was slop of the third water. I aver that everybody connected in any way with it, except me, had a stinking pole cat for a mother and father.”
  • Thomas Pynchon doesn’t enjoy talking to reporters, but he’s not really a recluse—who saddled him with that reputation? It may have been none other than our own founding editor: “It all started fifty-one years ago, in 1963, when George Plimpton in the New York Times published the line: ‘Pynchon is in his early twenties; he writes in Mexico City—a recluse.’ It is doubtful if Plimpton, who helped create The Paris Review, knew at the time that he was accidentally kicking off the largest and longest game of Where’s Waldo? ever conceived. Nevertheless, the label has stuck.”
  • Daily bummer: “We must reckon with the fact that pop culture really likes to be agreeable along with its thrills. It likes to say yes, and makes endless conciliations to do so. It is safer to say yes. Yes can be deeply pleasurable. History is made by those who say no.”
  • Kierkegaard’s prescience extends to cyberbullying and trolls: “If, for instance, I enter a place where many are gathered, it often happens that one or another right away takes up arms against me by beginning to laugh; presumably he feels that he is being a tool of public opinion. But lo and behold, if I then make a casual remark to him, that same person becomes infinitely pliable and obliging … That is what comes of living in a petty community.”
  • Is contemplation a pleasant exercise? No, experts say, “most people would rather give themselves an electric shock than be alone with their thoughts.” But “proclaiming that we’re unable to enjoy our own thoughts suggests that our mental weather is always supposed to be pleasant … The human mind is not meant to resemble a postcard from paradise forever fixed in a state of tropical bliss. It’s a vast and perplexing wonderland whose entire topography can change in an instant.

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No One Can Draw Runners, and Other News

October 13, 2014 | by

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A Greek vase with runners at the panathenaic games, ca. 530 BC.

  • “Picture a person running. You’re probably picturing [it] wrong. It’s okay, you wouldn’t be alone. It turns out that artists have been drawing people running incorrectly for thousands of years. From Greek vases to drawing handbooks to modern sculptures, even our very best artists can’t seem to get the pose right.”
  • A new anthology’s narrow definition of art: “There is certainly great value in drawing attention to the historical context of a poem. We ignore an essential feature of literature when we lose sight of its power as an artifact of a particular moment, place or era. Still, it is difficult to read Poetry of Witness without quickly sensing that the editors are gaming the system to support their narrow preconception of poetry’s utility.”
  • Censorship in China: great for sales. “Having a book banned in China is often a marketing coup for publishers selling copies abroad. In the age of social media, this dynamic appears to be playing out on the mainland as well … ‘Smothering someone is as good as crowning that person … A ‘smothering’ order is a reading list.’”
  • The art of brand names: What makes for assonant, beautiful, memorable, popular branding? (Pro tip: do not name your company Shpoonkle. It will fail.)
  • Against brunch: “There’s something more malevolent at work than simply the proliferation of Hollandaise sauce that I suspect comes from a packet. Brunch has become the most visible symptom of a demographic shift that has taken place in our neighborhood and others like it … Our once diverse neighborhood now brims with the homogeneity of an elite university.”

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Bovary at Market, and Other News

October 10, 2014 | by

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From an 1897 illustrated edition of Madame Bovary.

  • “If there is a politics of the white-collar novel in the United States, it is this: office fiction is deliberately and narrowly construed as being about manners, sociability, gossip, the micro-struggles for rank and status—in other words, ‘office politics’—rather than about the work that is done in offices.”
  • Jane Smiley on her absent father and her upbringing: “A girl who is overlooked has a good chance of not learning what it is she is supposed to do. A girl who is free can grow up free of preconceptions. Sometimes, from the outside, my work and my life look daring, but I am not a daring person. I am just a person who was never taught what not to try.”
  • The farmers-market scene in Madame Bovary reminds of how the social function of such markets has evolved: “If Emma Bovary were alive today in the small town where I used to make my home, she might be scanning the crowd on market day, but she wouldn’t be thinking ‘yokels.’ She might have a thing for the guy who sells microgreens, the one with the gray ponytail and the lingering smile who used to do something in tech.”
  • Shirley Temple as a troubling icon of the Depression: in the thirties, “the child became both commodity and consumer. And Shirley was the ultimate product, her managers capitalizing on the mania for cuteness … Children wanted both to have and to be Shirley. In addition to coveting the dolls and dresses, girls from Iowa to Bombay entered look-alike contests. But just what possessive desire did Shirley arouse in adults? The objects of her attention were almost invariably adult men. There was … scarcely a male lap she did not climb into on or offscreen, and there was an extravagant amount of manhandling in the films.”
  • Bemoaning the increasing role of the dystopian in science fiction, Neal Stephenson has started Project Hieroglyph: “The concept at the core of Project Hieroglyph is that science fiction creates potent images of scientific progress, images that Neal Stephenson dubs hieroglyphs, and that by making more positive and optimistic hieroglyphs, [sci-fi] can help make a better world.”

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“The Life-World of the Occupation,” and Other News

October 9, 2014 | by

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The Nobel Foundation’s announcement this morning.

  • Just in case you haven’t heard: the French writer Patrick Modiano has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. His work evokes “the most ungraspable human destinies,” the Swedish Academy says. Apologies to the many runners up whose work evokes only the second most ungraspable human destinies.
  • Such as, oh, say, Philip Roth: “For years, the story goes, Roth would actually make the trip into New York to wait in his agents’ office for the call, a rough publicity schedule ready to be printed and activated. There he would sit, in a meeting room presumably prepared with refreshments, and at the end of the day, make the long, sad trip back to Connecticut.”
  • “There’s been a trend, in recent years, of novels based on the biographies of novelists. If some readers might recoil from the genre, the success of writers such as Colm Tóibín (who novelized the life of Henry James) and David Lodge (who also wrote a fictional account of James, as well as of H. G. Wells) suggest that a fictionalized life can revivify even the most heavily biographized writers—or at least those from the turn of the nineteenth century.”
  • Newly discovered Indonesian cave paintings, some forty thousand years old, suggest “a new view about modern human origins, about when we became cognitively modern.”
  • Pong, the video game that launched an entire industry, was first manufactured in an abandoned roller rink: “The Pong games were put together not on an assembly line but in the middle of the floor, with young workers ambling up to stick in the various components.

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What Is an Essay, Anyway? and Other News

October 8, 2014 | by

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A portrait of Michel de Montaigne, whom you can blame in part, maybe, for all these “essays.”

  • Essays—essais, essayes—what are they, how are they, where did they come from, why can’t we seem to settle on the meaning of them, is Montaigne to blame for all this, or Francis Bacon or maybe King James, and what’s the meaning of all this “attempting” anyhow … John Jeremiah Sullivan aspires (don’t make me say essays) to find out.
  • Horace Engdahl, who helps to judge the Nobel Prize in Literature, laments the “professionalization” of writing in the West: “I think it cuts writers off from society, and creates an unhealthy link with institutions … Previously, writers would work as taxi drivers, clerks, secretaries, and waiters to make a living. Samuel Beckett and many others lived like this. It was hard—but they fed themselves, from a literary perspective.”
  • Relatedly: “A growing number of biographers and historians are retrofitting their works to make them palatable for younger readers … And these slimmed-down, simplified and sometimes sanitized editions of popular nonfiction titles are fast becoming a vibrant, growing and lucrative niche.”
  • Zadie Smith on a certain famous populous island: “Manhattan is for the hard-bodied, the hard-minded, the multitasker, the alpha mamas and papas. A perfect place for self-empowerment—as long as you’re pretty empowered to begin with. As long as you’re one of these people who simply do not allow anything—not even reality—to impinge upon that clear field of blue. There is a kind of individualism so stark that it seems to dovetail with an existentialist creed: Manhattan is right at that crossroads. You are pure potential in Manhattan, limitless, you are making yourself every day.”
  • “An intellectual is a person who is mainly interested in ideas. I am an aesthete—a person who is mainly interested in beauty. Nowadays the word aesthete carries with it the musty reek of high Victoriana. Still, there remains no better word to describe the way certain people—people like me—view the world.”

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Agatha Christie’s Diamond Cache, and Other News

October 7, 2014 | by

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Diamonds recovered from a compartment in a trunk owned by Agatha Christie.

  • Encouraging news for all who let their modifiers dangle: “A stickler insists that we never let a participle dangle, that you can’t say, ‘Turning the corner, a beautiful view awaited me’ … But if you look either at the history of great writing and language as it’s been used by its exemplary stylists, you find that they use dangling modifiers all the time. And if you look at the grammar of English you find that there is no rule that prohibits a dangling modifier … it was pretty much pulled out of thin air by one usage guide a century ago and copied into every one since.”
  • These are some ways we’ve received our mail: from pigeons, balloons, boule de moulins (“hollow zinc spheres the size of a man’s head and covered with fins … the idea was to place them in the river and let them float along the current … the service was canceled after just eleven days”), pneumatic rail, rockets, cats.
  • “Fincher appears to be more pessimistic about love than Kubrick was. Eyes Wide Shut, a post-Freudian work, takes sexual desire very seriously as a realm where the revelation of inner monsters makes it possible to live with them, with ourselves, and with each other. Gone Girl takes identity very seriously; it subordinates sex to power and love to pride, and suggests that the revelation of monstrosities brings knowledge without wisdom, adds pain to pain, covers masks with masks, and shows screens behind screens.”
  • When you’re stressed, you could drink and smoke or squeeze a rubber ball or get a spa treatment or indulge in some petty larceny—or you could just sit down and write a letter to yourself, which is apparently the way to do it.
  • An Agatha Christie fan has discovered the writer’s lost diamonds in a sealed metal strongbox bolted to the bottom of a trunk. “I had read Agatha Christie’s biography,” the fan said, “so I knew exactly what I was looking at.”

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