On the Shelf
May 11, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Chris Burden—who spent five days in a school locker, hammered a metal stud into his sternum, and had himself shot in the arm by a rifle from fifteen feet, all in the name of art—has died at sixty-nine. “Power was a central motif in Burden’s work. He approached it as an almost tactile, palpable material, one with visual, physical, emotional and social meanings … His work delved into the power of individuals, tribes and nations. Often he explored the realm of science and technology as distinctly modern manifestations of power’s dual capacity for the creation of magical delight or total annihilation.”
- Send a (well-encrypted) thank-you note to the antiauthoritarian librarian in your life: “Librarians have frequently been involved in the fight against government surveillance. The first librarian to be locked up for defending privacy and intellectual freedom was Zoia Horn, who spent three week in jail in 1972 for refusing to testify against anti–Vietnam War activists. During the Cold War, librarians exposed the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s attempts to recruit library staffers to spy on foreigners, particularly Soviets, through a national effort called the Library Awareness Program. The post-Snowden Internet age is no different.”
- The county of Dorset, along the coast of England, gave Thomas Hardy “the pastoral landscapes that he is famous for describing; the farmland and heath with sandstone cottages, sheep pastures and Roman roads ending abruptly at dramatic seaside cliffs. And since Dorset is relatively unspoiled by modern development, it isn’t hard to imagine, with a squint of the eyes, the countryside as Hardy saw it.”
- The Irish landscape, meanwhile, contains such well-documented beauty and blight that any writer who takes it on risks courting cliché—but why not try anyway? “Over the years I had avoided what I call ‘the landscape solution’ in Irish prose, whereby the writer puts the word ‘Atlantic’ or ‘bog’ into the story and some essential yearning in her character is fixed. But there I was myself, getting fixed on the green road, and it seemed to me that this was something I should allow myself to write about now.”
- Today in living, breathing metaphors: people who think they’re made of glass. When glass was a new and seemingly magical material, glass delusions manifested relatively commonly; about midway through the nineteenth century, though, doctors began to see fewer and fewer of them. “It’s easy to assume society and culture are so changed that mentally ill people would no longer manifest this particular delusion. But a psychiatrist from the Netherlands has uncovered contemporary cases … The glass delusion has powerful contemporary resonance in a society in which anxieties about fragility, transparency, and personal space are pertinent to many people's experience of, and anxieties about, living in the modern world.”
May 8, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- A plea to the professoriat: If you really love the humanities, do them a favor and shut up about Shakespeare. “On the shrinking support for the liberal arts in American education … organizations such as ACTA and NAS mistake a parochial struggle over particular authors and curricula for the full-throated defense of the humanities.”
- When Jules Verne meets the sterling judgment of our nation’s executive branch: John Quincy Adams once approved a journey to the center of the Earth. The plan asked for “one hundred brave companions, well equipped, to start from Siberia in the fall season, with Reindeer and slays, on the ice of the frozen sea … ”
- Fran Ross’s 1974 novel, Oreo, newly reissued, “resists the unwritten conventions that still exist for novels written by black women. There’s nothing redemptively uplifting about Ross’s work. The title doesn’t refer to the Bible or the blues. The work does not refer to slavery. The character is never violated, sexually or otherwise. The characters are not from the South. Oreo is sincerely ironic, hilarious, brainy, impenetrable at times.”
- Scott Timberg’s new book Culture Crash “holds the well-being of the cultural middle class as the key to American creativity.” But this thesis only reveals “an unexplored aesthetic bias that favors the sort of art reviewed in the pages of the unrepentantly middle-class New York Times, art that becomes middlebrow through its relative accessibility and popularity. Forget the cynical dross intended for the tasteless masses: It is this kind of middlebrow culture—the kind best known and appreciated by well-rounded liberal-arts grads—of which Timberg wants to see more, even though it abounds right now.”
- Of Mice and Men contains such hair-raising profanities as bastard and God damn, which make it unsuitable, according to a curriculum-review committee in Idaho, for fourteen- or fifteen-year-old students. “Teachers actually had the audacity to have students read these profanities out loud in class,” one parent said.
May 7, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- In defense of Kim Kardashian’s book of selfies, which is “arguably emblematic of the disruptions in image production and consumption that have taken place over the past decade on a significant, even revolutionary level”: “Though their circumstances are hardly comparable, the Kardashians, like the Brontës, are a family of creative women, in the business of conducting narratives in which men come and go, but female relationships remain constant and meaningful.”
- Harold Bloom presides over a tour of his stuffed animals: “Well, there’s Valentina, the ostrich, named after Valentinus, second-century author of The Gospel of Truth … this little baby gorilla, well, we call Gorilla Gorilla. And there is that famous original A. A. Milne donkey, Eeyore, and the last of our boys here, Oscar, the duck-billed platypus, named in honor of my hero, Oscar Wilde.”
- We’re not in the habit of dispensing financial advice—we’re a nonprofit, after all—but if you’ve got 3.25 million quid just lying around, and you’re an extravagant person, you could do worse than buy this old manor house, once featured in Thomas Hardy’s The Trumpet-Major.
- You could also do better, though. Say, by preserving one of America’s stately, nineteenth-century mental asylums, of which only fifteen remain. New Jersey’s Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital, for instance, built in 1876, is on the verge of demolition, despite its obvious historic significance.
- Faulkner got the idea for Pylon, his underrated novel about daredevil fliers, from a conversation with Howard Hawks, in Hollywood: “I said, ‘Why don’t you write about some decent people, for goodness’ sake?’ ‘Like who?’ I said, ‘Well, you fly around, don’t you know some pilots or something that you can write about?’ And he thought a while, and he said, ‘Oh, I know a good story. Three people—a girl and a man were wingwalkers, and the other man was a pilot. The girl was gonna have a baby, and she didn’t know which one was the father.’”
May 6, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Tim Parks on reading and the senses: “We have a vested interest in supposing that we are capable of projecting a kind of continuous movie of the events in a novel … The problem is that upon close examination the reading experience is far more complex and far less visual than is commonly supposed … So what do we see when we read? First the page, of course, and the words printed on it. No ‘image’ we have of the characters or settings will ever be as concrete, as indisputably and continuously present, as the solid book … ”
- Pedro Martinez’s new autobiography reveals, at last, a field-tested secret to beating performance anxiety: “Early on, when I was in the minor leagues and measuring the opposing batter, I would conjure up a scene straight out of the most gruesome Hollywood blood-and-gore slasher flick: my mother, strapped tightly by ropes to a chair, her mouth gagged, her eyes clenched shut, too terrified to look down at the tip of a knife held to her throat by the leader of a gang of kidnappers.”
- Today, in pleas from academia: Can’t we stop conferring, already? Haven’t we had enough of this masquerade? “Conferences feel necessary, but their purpose is unclear. They have great potential to help revitalize the humanities, but have not yet lived up to this potential.”
- Other than perennial favorites—your John Dowells and Holden Caulfields, anyone from Joyce or Nabokov—who are the greatest unreliable narrators? Look to Henry James, for starters, and “give up pretending there weren’t unreliable narrators before 1940”: “The Sacred Fount is his least read major novel, and certainly his oddest. The narrator spends the entire book concocting elaborate deductions about fellow partygoers based on next to no evidence.”
- If “a dining table was once a simple, knockdown affair,” how did we end up with profligate place settings, glutted with silverware, centerpieces, and candelabras? A history of tablescapes finds that “improved manufacturing technologies led to a boom in utensils and flatware. Elite European tables have displayed silver dishware since the Middle Ages, but the variety of dishes for holding food continually increased, as they became more specific and more ornate. This trend peaked in the Victorian Era, when an abundance of silver, glass, and porcelain contributed to the table’s shiny new look, with about twenty pieces per place setting.”
May 5, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- At UC Berkeley, scholars have discovered a cache of stories by Mark Twain, written when he was a twenty-nine-year-old newspaperman in San Francisco. “His topics range from San Francisco police—who at one point attempted, unsuccessfully, to sue Twain for comparing their chief to a dog chasing its tail to impress its mistress—to mining accidents.”
- Filmmakers have always struggled in depicting the act of writing. Authors in movies tend to act, all too realistically, like total bores—sitting there, typing, thinking, gazing out windows, et cetera. But it is possible to make good films about writing. One of them is Joachim Trier’s Reprise, which “recognizes that much of the stuff of writing and literary circles is, well, talk. And unlike many other such films, it can talk that talk.”
- Bellow had a way with similes: “When Professor Ravelstein laughs, he throws his head back ‘like Picasso’s wounded horse in Guernica’ … Eddie Walish has a woodwind laugh ‘closer to oboe than to clarinet, and he releases his laugh from the wide end of his nose as well as from his carved pumpkin mouth’ … A man with a wooden leg walks ‘bending and straightening gracefully like a gondolier.’ ”
- In the late sixties, the progenitors of land art were “literal groundbreakers”—a new documentary, Troublemakers, tries to rediscover their works, many of which have “succumbed to natural forces.”
- Plenty of horror video games borrow from Dracula—but they take only the “shallowest trappings” from Stoker, preferring instead to lean on Lovecraft. A new game, Bloodborne, “offers a backward lens into a particularly strange point in horror history in which the anxieties of a changing world found its way into the monsters and terrors of the genre.”
May 4, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- About a decade ago, Jonathan Gottschall pioneered “literary Darwinism,” a school of thought that interprets literature through the prism of evolutionary desires. By bringing biological concerns to English departments, he hoped to rescue the humanities from triviality: “the alternative is to let literature study keep spinning off into a corner of irrelevance to die.” Today, perhaps unsurprisingly, his career “is in a precarious place,” but hey, at least he’s writing trade books …
- Hardly anyone is writing love songs anymore—can we assume, from this, that hardly anyone is in love? “The traditional romantic love song has lately ceased to be as central to American pop music as it still was well into the ’70s. For now, while the pop charts are laden with songs about love, that love is often rendered in an anti-romantic manner that is sharply at variance with how love was customarily portrayed during the golden age of American popular song.”
- Lynne Tillman on David Wojnarowicz, whose photo-book Brush Fires in the Social Landscape was published twenty years ago: “In the 1980s, being infected by HIV and developing AIDS was an unchosen, horrific fate, fatal. People were very frightened, and felt hopeless. Not every artist or writer responded as Wojnarowicz did. His responses were unique, thoroughly felt, and driven by an urgent necessity. In his time, his work was extraordinarily moving—it stunned. It will never be experienced again as it was then, in that very dark moment.
- “Occasionally, unintentionally, triggered by a smell or an old tune, my mind drifts to that time when Paris didn’t resemble the USA at all ... ” Nadja Tesich, the star of Eric Rohmer’s 1964 short film Nadja à Paris, on the French New Wave and filmmaking in the Paris of yore.
- As a boy, Julian Barnes experienced an artistic awakening—and it was Gustave Moreau who made the scales fall from his eyes. “I was uncertain what to make of such work: exotic, bejeweled, and darkly glittering, with an odd mixture of private and public symbolism, little of which I could unscramble. Perhaps it was this mysteriousness that attracted me; and perhaps I admired Moreau the more because nobody told me to do so. But it was certainly here that I remember myself for the first time consciously looking at pictures, rather than being passively and obediently in their presence.”