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On the Shelf

Advanced Studies in Time Wasting, and Other News

November 18, 2014 | by

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Akseli Gallen-Kallela, Symposium, 1894.

  • The Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year is vape, which can function as a noun or a verb and “arose to fill a gap in our lexicon.” One can only imagine all the e-cigarette manufacturers presently scrambling to send complimentary samples to Oxford University Press’s offices.
  • At last, someone’s teaching a course at the University of Pennsylvania called “Wasting Time on the Internet.” “Although we’ll all be in the same room, our communication will happen exclusively through chat rooms and listservs, or over social media. Distraction and split attention will be mandatory. So will aimless drifting and intuitive surfing.” I’ve been auditing this class unknowingly for my entire adult life. I must owe UPenn hundreds of thousands of dollars by now.
  • Today in algorithms: a new one “automatically generates an independent ranking of notable authors for a given year.” It’s intended to help archivists learn which books in the public domain were the most popular—but it also has huge ramifications for ego massage and ego damage.
  • “He leans his right elbow on several grapefruit-size balls he has made from rubber bands people have given him during his daily circuit of social pit stops in Manhattan. He keeps hard candy in his pockets and a box of dog biscuits in the trunk, for dispensing.” This is New York’s oldest cabbie.
  • The oldest leather shoe, by comparison, has been around for 5,500 years and can be seen at a museum in Armenia.

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Painting the Invisible Hippo, and Other News

November 17, 2014 | by

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Peter Paul Rubens, Hippopotamus and Crocodile Hunt, 1616.

  • A new book looks at the history of the literary feud—with an abundance of ripe examples, including “the battle between Bevis Hillier and AN Wilson in the 1980s. Wilson had published a devastating review of Hillier’s authorized biography of John Betjeman, calling it ‘a hopeless mishmash.’ When Wilson announced his own biography of Betjeman, he received a letter from a mysterious French woman including the copy of an unpublished letter from Betjeman to Honor Tracy, describing their affair. Wilson could not resist including it in his book, and when the biography came out Hillier gleefully revealed that the letter was an acrostic, spelling out ‘AN Wilson is a shit.’”
  • Today in evolving forms of literacy: Emoji as language. On Twitter, emoji are now used more frequently than hyphens, tildes, and the numeral five. Whither emoji-speak? And does this wordless tongue have any antecedents? (“In 1974, the American Institute of Graphic Arts, in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Transportation, designed a new system of symbols to be used in airports around the world in response to the increase in global travel … the design committee also made the following deduction: ‘We are convinced that the effectiveness of symbols is strictly limited.’ ”)
  • In 1616, Peter Paul Rubens painted a hippo. Problem: He had never laid eyes on a hippo. How did he do this?
  • A debut, of sorts, for Denis Johnson—as a visual artist. “His sketch is what I like to think of as three-quarters Basquiat, one-quarter ninth-grade geometry class.”
  • Writers and musicians seem to collaborate constantly, and yet it’s seldom a collaboration in the truest sense of the word. “Superficially, these collaborations fit into a pattern of writing and music as natural partners, one—to paraphrase Katharine Hepburn on Astaire and Rogers—providing the other with class, the other giving sex appeal … Perhaps tellingly, however, such liaisons tend to be one-off or short-lived … A novelist, playwright or poet providing words for someone else to turn into music and perform, although it is a model inherited from opera and musicals in earlier eras, is now surprisingly rare.”

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Sketches from an Artificial Mind, and Other News

November 14, 2014 | by

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Not a fair fight: five robots sketch one man. Photo via Beautiful/Decay

  • A new collection of stories from the tenth-century Arab world is agreeably unhinged, particularly when it comes to sex. In “The Story of the Forty Girls and What Happened to Them with the Prince,” for instance, “a Persian prince stumbles across an enchanted castle run by a sorceress and her troop of warlike female cousins. Divested of their armor, the girls prove to be ‘more beautiful than the houris of Paradise,’ and queue up to enjoy his favors (naturally they are all virgins). Finally the sorceress offers herself to him, forbidding the prince—who is impressively not yet exhausted—from approaching any of the others again on pain of being imprisoned, tortured and loaded with iron chains; conditions to which he cheerfully agrees. That’s forty couplings, and then some, since the sorceress, having miraculously regained her virginity, presents herself for a second deflowering.”
  • If you’d prefer to keep things chaste, look to love in the time of telegraphy. The nineteenth century saw a vibrant subgenre of the romance in which telegraph operators flirted across the wires. “There’s something incredibly modern about these amateur stories and the way they handle technology, the influence of corporations, gender, and love in the time of hyperconnection.”
  • A history of the New York Times Style section and its uncanny ability to court controversy: “For decades, many of us have used ‘reading the New York Times’ as a kind of performance, a shorthand to convey our seriousness or sophistication or social cachet, or yes, even our affluence. To read the Times daily, we think, is to signify that one is in this world, but not of We imagine ourselves the world’s observers, its makers, or even its collective conscience. We want to believe we are reading from far above the fray of Juicy Couture, or Botox, or any of a hundred other manifestations of rank consumerism, vanity and anxiety. The section instead is a jarring, insistent reminder of the folly of this fantasy. Styles, we are you.”
  • Novelists and musicians earn royalties on their work—visual artists don’t, meaning they receive nothing from multimillion-dollar deals involving their art. Art Royalties Too, a new bill making its way through the congressional meat grinder, will try to change that, but no one knows if it will pass. “Intellectual property is a very unusual area in Congress. As a general rule, you cannot predict where someone is going to be on an issue like this or on music licensing by knowing that he’s a Democrat or Republican.”
  • I wrote earlier this week about a robot that could give you the creepy sensation that someone is right behind you. But the world has no shortage of terrifying robots, and so now I give you this: Paul-IX, a robot who can sketch with more talent and accuracy than most humans. (If this robot teamed up with the other, it could get some great sketches of you looking creeped out.)

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Coming Soon: More Vengeful Deities, and Other News

November 13, 2014 | by

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The wrath of God.

  • Everyone’s going nuts for Serial, an impeccably reported (and very self-aware) true-crime podcast spun off from This American Life. But Janet Malcolm was up to something similar many decades ago, wasn’t she?
  • Then again, this should come as no surprise. “Hasn’t it all been done before? Perhaps better than anyone today could ever do it?” Why should any of us bother with the new when so much of the old is out there waiting for us?
  • Actually, why should any of us leave our houses at all? We’re just going to encounter the absurd—a bunch of loony scholars, for instance, tooling around town with a life-size statue of Jane Austen in tow …
  • And even the best literature offers no respite from the absurd and the terrifying. Quite the opposite. “In August a man in the Bronx tied a chain to a pole, wrapped it around his neck, got behind the wheel of his Honda and stepped on the accelerator. The chain severed his head from his body, which crashed through the windscreen and landed on the street when the Honda slammed into a parked car … It put me in mind of a passage early in Donald Antrim’s first novel, Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World.”
  • But it’s all right. As the world grows more confused and tempestuous, we’ll at least find ourselves with more righteous, awesome, angry gods. A new study finds that “belief in moralizing high gods is ‘more prevalent among societies that inhabit poorer environments and are more prone to ecological distress’ … In societies that exist in places with violent monsoon seasons or periods of extreme drought, cooperation is more important than it is in temperate areas … And what better way to promote cooperation and fair play than the idea of an all-seeing god who demands it?”

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Getting at the Gothic, and Other News

November 12, 2014 | by

Gothic British Library Tales of Terror

From Matthew Lewis’s Tales of Terror, published 1808.

  • In France, 40 percent of TV programming comes from America, which means dubbing is a major industry, and voice-over actors have enough work to collect a following of their own: meet the French Jennifer Lawrence and the French Daniel Radcliffe, for instance.
  • The Brothers Grimm published seven editions of their famous tales—the last edition is best known today. But the first edition sounds a lot more fun: “Rapunzel is impregnated by her prince, the evil queen in Snow White is the princess’s biological mother, plotting to murder her own child, and a hungry mother in another story is so ‘unhinged and desperate’ that she tells her daughters: ‘I’ve got to kill you so I can have something to eat.’ ”
  • In the nineties, Bob Dylan pursued a gutsy alternative career: “After binge-watching Jerry Lewis movies on his tour bus, Dylan came to the conclusion that slapstick comedy was where he wanted to put his artistic stamp … ‘We finally wrote … a very elaborate treatment for this slapstick comedy, which is filled with surrealism and all kinds of things from his songs and stuff.’ ” HBO bought the show, but Dylan’s interest waned soon after.
  • The Gothic is “having a moment” now—and a new exhibition at the British Library explores 250 years of the Gothic tradition. But what does it mean to be Gothic, anyway? “The term suffers from its implicit pluralism: Are we talking about novels, horror films, flying buttresses, Alice Cooper, black-painted fingernails or a specific period in North-European history? On the one hand, it seems fair to say that John Ruskin’s famous comments on the architecture—that most of us know Gothic when we see it, without being able to identify exactly what makes it so—still have something to say about the thing as a whole. On the other, the Gothic really does just mean the spooky and the titillating.”
  • “I’m not a cynic. I prefer irony, which depends on the ability to hold contradictory ideas, which probably springs from ambivalence. People confuse and conflate irony with insincerity and dishonesty; they believe an ironist isn’t serious. But saying the opposite of what is meant allows for at least two meanings to fly. Irony couples and uncouples statements, while revealing the hidden agendas of language and its conventions.”

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Loose Lips Make the World Go Round, and Other News

November 11, 2014 | by

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From U.S. World War II–era propaganda.

  • Last week, our editor Lorin Stein spoke at an event in San Francisco about Édouard Levé, whose work he’s translated—the audio from the discussion is now online.
  • Flannery O’Connor has been inducted into the American Poets Corner at New York’s St. John the Divine, the “only shrine to American literature in the country.” “Inducting O’Connor this year was a fairly easy consensus decision. More contentious was the selection of the quotation for her plaque. The challenge was to tread a line between what Nelson called O’Connor’s ‘grand pronouncements’ and what Alfred Corn called her southern ‘cracker-barrel humor.’ The quote they settled on is from a 1953 letter that O’Connor wrote to Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell … ‘I can with one eye squinted take it all as a blessing.’ ”
  • John le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man is banned at Guantánamo, and he’s altogether pretty psyched about it: “In banning my novel, the custodians of Guantánamo have once again demonstrated their sensitivity and respect for human dignity. No prisoner who has not been found guilty of any crime should be subjected to cruel and degrading literature.”
  • Today in bold claims from evolutionary psychologists: “Gossip is what makes human society as we know it possible.” Tell all your friends.
  • The long, strange birth of Fundamentalism in America: “The term itself was coined in the 1920s by American Protestants who resolved to return to the ‘fundamentals’ of Christianity. Their retreat from public life after the Civil War had narrowed and, perhaps, distorted their vision. Instead of engaging as before with such issues as racial or economic inequality, they focused on biblical literalism, convinced that every single assertion of scripture was literally true. And so, their enemy was no longer social injustice but the German Higher Criticism of the Bible, which had been embraced by the more liberal American Christians who were still attempting to bring the gospel to bear on social problems.”

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