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On the Shelf

The Vegetated Sound Buffer of Your Dreams, and Other News

May 19, 2016 | by

A rendering from Studio Dror. Photo via Slate.

  • Remember that scene in The Squid and the Whale where the pretentious Jesse Eisenberg character says that a novel is “very Kafkaesque,” and his classmate says, “That’s because it was written by Franz Kafka”? In real life we have the opposite problem: the word Kafkaesque risks total meaninglessness. “The dictionary defines the adjective, incidentally, as ‘of, relating to, or suggestive of Franz Kafka or his writings; especially: having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality’ … But Merriam-Webster also admits that the word, which saw its first recorded use in English in 1946, ‘is so overused that it’s begun to lose its meaning,’ a word that a columnist for Toronto’s Globe and Mail argued is ‘tossed around with cavalier imprecision, applied to everything from an annoying encounter with a petty bureaucrat to the genocidal horrors of the Third Reich.’ ”
  • Every year brings with it another armload of Brontë-related biographies and ephemera: plays, films, novelizations, tea towels. Why? “I see no reason not to consider the Brontë cult a religion. What are People of the Book, after all, if not irrepressible embroiderers of fetishized texts?” Judith Shulevitz asks. “The Jews have a word for the feverish imaginings that run like bright threads through their Torah commentaries: midrash, the spinning of gloriously weird backstories or fairy tales prompted by gaps or contradictions in the narratives … Some Brontë fans—reader, I’m one of them—would happily work through stacks of Brontë midrash in search of answers to the mysterium tremendum, the awesome mystery, of the Brontës’ improbable sainthood. How did a poor and socially awkward ex-governess named Charlotte and her even more awkward sister Emily, who kept house for their father in a parsonage on a Yorkshire moor far from the literary circles of London, come to write novels and poems that outshone nearly every other nineteenth-century British novel and poem by dint of being more alive?”

Robot Cars Are Totally Soulless, and Other News

May 18, 2016 | by

“The Man Catcher,” an early effort at pedestrian safety.

  • Books can be difficult—so many words, and usually they’re the same color. But what if we made them different colors? The Folio Society’s new edition of The Sound and the Fury presents the text “in fourteen different colors that represent different time zones in the narrative,” and this one guy is super excited about it: “Colored text … feels like a breakthrough for publishing. It’s a playful approach perfectly attuned to our era. Learning in general has already moved away from dusty tomes of monochrome text to brighter, shinier and more interactive methods. In a time of short attention spans and digital distractions, could multicolored publishing work for other difficult books? Would Gravity’s Rainbow be more popular with a rainbow-colored makeover? Would Proust’s interminable sentences be easier to navigate if they switched back and forth from one color to another, allowing the reader a sense of a light at the end of each tunnel?” (Because that’s why we read Proust: for the occasional sense of relief.)
  • If you’ve kept yourself up at night pondering the ethical dilemmas of driverless cars—like, if they’re going really fast and there’s a kid in the road, and they can either plow over the kid or jerk the wheel and kill you, the passenger—you might have even bigger problems to worry about. Daniel Albert writes: “I’m optimistic about our robot-car future. It will be really cool. But make no mistake that the development of driverless cars will flow from the same combination of forces that have carried us from the Model T to the Tesla. For some 120 years those forces have favored not mobility precisely, but automobility: a system that melds moving from place to place with industrial production and consumerism. Promoters of autonomous vehicles promise that they will defeat those forces, will wipe the slate clean. History suggests that they might also be consumed by them … Robot cars will be neither moral nor immoral in the narrow sense premised in the thought experiments now being conducted and sold as valuable. They will not exist outside of the current automotive ecosystem. They will instead enter an automotive landscape that instantiates myriad ethical choices made in the past and rehearsed daily.”

Get Up There! and Other News

May 17, 2016 | by

A Fellow from the American Academy in Rome peers down through the Pantheon’s oculus from the roof, ca. 1975. Photo via The New York Review of Books.

  • The appeal of Jane Austen’s novels to young women should be no mystery, Mikita Brottman writes, because Austen’s books are full of hidden pain, just like teens: “The world of Jane Austen’s heroines—that ‘two inches of ivory’—is so small that everything matters almost too much, which is precisely what the world can feel like to an eighteen-year-old girl … The tiniest breach in teenage etiquette could have all kinds of terrible repercussions, but the pain it caused couldn’t be expressed. Responses had to be regulated at all times. At eighteen, most girls live in a world of secret anguish. This is why young women such as my students can identify with Austen’s heroines—because they live, for the most part, in a similarly limited world … My students loved talking about the grand country houses, the balls with half-hour-long dances, the old-fashioned courtship rituals, the families, the dresses, the weddings. I tried to tell them Jane Austen was all about pain, but, unsurprisingly, they refused to listen. ‘I myself prefer a novel that gives me an escape from the sometimes crude realities of this world,’ wrote one girl. Another claimed: ‘Reading Jane Austen’s work simply makes me happy.’ ”
  • I think it’s nice that you’re reading this post on a glowing screen. I’m happy you’re here. But if you’re a big picture kind of person, you should probably stop and print this out before you keep going, environmental repercussions be damned. A new study “offers evidence we process texts differently if we are reading them on paper, as opposed to an electronic device. It finds we remember concrete details better if we’ve read a work on a laptop or tablet. We grasp the larger inferences of a story more thoroughly, however, if we’ve read it in print … Seventy-seven participants filled out a survey designed to indicate whether they were thinking in small-bore or big-picture terms. They were given the category ‘Joining the Army,’ for example, and then asked which of the following phrases ‘best describes the behavior for you’: ‘signing up’ (concrete detail), or ‘Helping the nation’s defense’ (big-picture). Forty participants filled out the survey on a digital screen, while the other thirty-six did so using pencil and paper … Those who used the classic paper-and-pencil method ‘exhibited a significantly higher level of preference’ for the more abstract of the two choices, compared to their counterparts who used a touch screen.”

More Novels Starring Coins, Please, and Other News

May 16, 2016 | by

Only this watermarked stock photo of a walking one-euro coin truly captures the thrill of novels with currency at their centers.

  • I find novels starring people—or any animate creatures, really—to be unthinkably dull. For this reason I do most of my reading in the mid to late eighteenth century, when novels with inanimate objects at their centers enjoyed a brief but memorable time in the literary limelight. The most famous one was told from the perspective of a coin: “Chrysal, or the Adventures of a Guinea thrilled contemporary readers with ‘Views of several striking Scenes,’ an insider’s account of the scandalous doings of the ‘most Noted Persons in every Rank of Life,’ and tales from the gold mines of Peru, the streets of London, the canals of Amsterdam, the ports of the Caribbean, and the front lines of the Great War … It was a tipping point for what are frequently referred to as ‘it-narratives.’ It-narratives, also called ‘novels of circulation’ or ‘object narratives,’ are novels or stories that take an inanimate object or an animal as its narrator … With a market proven, writers for hire began churning them out with variable quality. By 1781, a bored reviewer in The Critical Review complained, ‘This mode of making up a book, and styling it the Adventures of a Cat, a Dog, a Monkey, a Hackney-coach, a Louse, a Shilling, a Rupee, or—any thing else, is grown so fashionable now, that few months pass which do not bring one of them under our inspection.’ ”

  • In which Nabokov, talking to us from 1926, attempts to make sense of his exile: “There is a very seductive and very dangerous demon: the demon of generalities. He captivates man’s thought by marking every phenomenon with a little label, and punctiliously placing it together with another, similarly carefully wrapped and numbered phenomenon. Through him a field of human knowledge as changeable as history is turned into a neat little office, where this many wars and that many revolutions sleep in folders—and where we can pore over bygone ages in complete comfort. This demon is fond of words such as idea, tendency, influence, period, and era. In the historian’s study this demon reductively combines in hindsight the phenomena, influences, and tendencies of past ages. With this demon comes appalling tedium—the knowledge (utterly mistaken, by the way) that, however humanity plays its hand or fights back, it follows an implacable course. This demon should be feared. He is a fraud. He is a salesman of centuries, pushing his historical price list.”
  • Today in dramatic acts of digital preservation: if ever the Daily shuts down, we hope to survive in a kind of bardic oral tradition, having former readers pass down our stories one at a time through the generations, at great length and with little regard for accuracy. The website, which I’d never heard of before about ten minutes ago, is taking fewer chances. Instead of vanishing into the mists of time, they’re keeping their users’ contributions “in a nickel-plate ‘book’ designed to be readable for the next 10,000 years … Everything on the site—roughly two million words and fourteen thousand photos—will be etched in microscopic size onto a series of nickel plates. Everything will be readable with an optical microscope.” (One of the site’s founders notes that the plates are “fire resistant” and “deal well with saltwater.”)
  • Philosophy departments are among the most Eurocentric in all of academe—which is fine, as long as they practice truth in advertising. Write to your congressman: “Any department that regularly offers courses only on Western philosophy should rename itself ‘Department of European and American Philosophy’ … We hope that American philosophy departments will someday teach Confucius as routinely as they now teach Kant, that philosophy students will eventually have as many opportunities to study the Bhagavad Gita as they do the Republic, that the Flying Man thought experiment of the Persian philosopher Avicenna (980–1037) will be as well-known as the Brain-in-a-Vat thought experiment of the American philosopher Hilary Putnam (1926–2016), that the ancient Indian scholar Candrakirti’s critical examination of the concept of the self will be as well-studied as David Hume’sthat Frantz Fanon (1925–1961), Kwasi Wiredu (1931– ), Lame Deer (1903–1976) and Maria Lugones will be as familiar to our students as their equally profound colleagues in the contemporary philosophical canon. But, until then, let’s be honest, face reality and call departments of European-American Philosophy what they really are.”

Elaborate Networks of Siphons, and Other News

May 13, 2016 | by

Detail from an illustration in an 1851 English edition of Hero’s Pneumatica.

  • While we’re on government-generated weekend-reading material: if you’re feeling morbid, you could try, instead, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s catalog of the ways people have died on the job. Something about its bland, administrative style makes it a chillingly effective memento mori: “Worker was crushed when tractor he was driving, pulling a bin dumper full of pomegranates, fell onto its side. Worker was possibly trying to make a U-turn while going too fast … Worker was engulfed after standing on a pile of beans at a bean plant … Worker was crushed by a rack of baked goods … Worker was eating lunch and swallowed a bee … ”
  • Well before the likes of Alan Turing, the notion of artificial intelligence came alive in automata, i.e., self-moving machines. The first robots were, in a sense, waterworks. Jessica Riskin writes:Many involved elaborate networks of siphons that activated various actions as the water passed through them, especially figures of birds drinking, fluttering, and chirping … Waterworks, including but not limited to ones using siphons, were probably the most important category of automata in antiquity and the middle ages. Flowing water conveyed motion to a figure or set of figures by means of levers or pulleys or tripping mechanisms of various sorts. A late twelfth-century example by an Arabic automaton-maker named Al-Jazari is a peacock fountain for handwashing, in which flowing water triggers little figures to offer the washer first a dish of perfumed soap powder, then a hand towel.”
  • It’s one thing to translate a dead author, who can no longer quibble with your decisions—but a living author is another matter entirely. “The few living authors I’ve translated,” Lydia Davis says in a new interview with Liesl Schillinger, “tend to be very modest and self-effacing, like Snijders and Blanchot, so they’ll say, Whatever you think is best, this is really your work, that sort of thing. I have had friends who have had very different experiences with authors, who say, No, that’s not it at all, and virtually force them to write in a way that they’re not happy writing. I’ve had times when I wished an author were still alive, especially in the case of Michel Leiris, so I could ask, What exactly did you mean? Actually, Leiris sent me a couple of postcards that I framed. His handwriting is great, black spidery old man’s handwriting. As I remember, he said something like, I’m here to help in any way I can. I don’t think I took advantage of his offer, which is something I really regret, now.”

Congratulations, You’re Everywhere, and Other News

May 12, 2016 | by

William Sergeant Kendall, Narcissa (detail).

  • The art of literary hate mail endures, though you’d think people today would have better things to do or at least more prominent people to hate. William Giraldi offers a history of the form, a glimpse at some of his own hate mail (received, not sent), and, best of all, a sample of D. H. Lawrence’s scornful contributions, which reveal him as a true master of spleen: “To poet Amy Lowell in 1914: ‘Why do you deny the bitterness in your nature, when you write poetry? Why do you take a pose? It causes you always to shirk your issues, and find a banal resolution at the end.’ To Katherine Mansfield in 1920: ‘I loathe you. You revolt me stewing in your consumption,’ to which he amends this barb: ‘The Italians were quite right to have nothing to do with you.’ To critic John Middleton Murry in 1924: ‘Your articles in the Adelphi always annoy me. Why care so much about your own fishiness or fleshiness? Why make it so important? Can’t you focus yourself outside yourself? Not forever focused on yourself, ad nauseam?’ To Aldous Huxley in 1928: ‘I have read Point Counter Point with a heart sinking through my boot soles … It becomes of a phantasmal boredom and produces ultimately inertia, inertia, inertia and final atrophy of the feelings.’”
  • Forty-five years ago, Sports Illustrated hired Hunter S. Thompson to write five hundred words about a motorcycle race in Vegas. What emerged from the assignment was … different: “The final version would clock in at 204 pages (more than sixty thousand words)—over the course of which Thompson would manage to include a grand total of twenty-two psychopharmacological substances. Acid/LSD appears the most: it’s mentioned thirty-nine times and is consumed, in scene, twice. Mescaline comes in second, referred to on nineteen different occasions, but regarding consumption it takes top billing … While Hunter Thompson would manage to include in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas a wide variety of subjects, one theme we tend to overlook, today, is a perspective on drugs that manages to articulate, with surprising foresight, our own present-day relationship with psychopharmacology—with stimulants, especially. After all, Thompson wasn’t taking Dexedrine to get high, to expand his consciousness; his amphetamine use could be egregious, yes, and on these two trips, after so many days of constant consumption—of drinking and not sleeping—the end result, the general degradation of his physical and mental state, would seem to suggest otherwise. But he didn’t use the drug to escape the reality of the world around him … ”