On the Shelf
November 7, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Fact: the New York Public Library has among its possessions a letter opener with a handle made from the paw of Charles Dickens’s dead cat. (“The story is that he had trained his cat to put out his night candle with his paw.”)
- “Genre doesn’t have to be vexing. It can be illuminating. It can be useful for writers and readers to think in terms of groups and traditions. And a good genre system—a system that really fits reality—can help us see the traditions in which we’re already, unconsciously, immersed.”
- Sixty years ago, the CIA helped to bankroll England’s first-ever animated film: an adaptation of Animal Farm. They thought it would make for great anti-Russian propaganda, especially if they changed the ending, and they knew it would be cheaper to make it in England. “The CIA agent who bought the film rights supposedly promised Mrs. Orwell that he would arrange for her to meet her favorite star, Clark Gable.” Did such a meeting ever occur? When will our government finally tell us the truth?
- Oops: “Do you remember when the Authors Guild sued Google over Google Book Search, which is basically the right to make an index of stuff in books? They said to Google, ‘If you’re going to do this, you’re going to do it on our terms, and you’re going to have to give us a whole $70 million.’ … Google said, ‘$70 million? Let’s shake the sofa and find some change for you.’ Meanwhile, you are guaranteeing that nobody else in the future history of the world will be able to afford to index books, which is one of the ways people find and buy books. Now Google owns that forever, for a mere $70 million! Nice work, Authors Guild. You’ve just made us all sharecroppers in Google’s fields for the rest of eternity.”
- The latest battle in the Usage Wars is really heating up: “If you say ‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ you are probably a native speaker of English or someone with a good command of how native speakers actually speak. If you say ‘It’s not you—it’s I,’ you will quickly achieve the goal of making the other person not want to spend any more time with you. Yet this bizarre formulation is just how Nathan Heller of The New Yorker would have you speak.”
November 6, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- A certain Gen-X urtext is now twenty years old and all the more interesting for it: “I discovered that Reality Bites, weirdly, provides interesting commentary about the economy. In fact, it’s a film about money. To be a little more specific, the movie explores a deep, complicated ambivalence about work, freedom, capitalist impulses, and authenticity … Their story looks a lot less romantic from the vantage point of middle age. Generation X has turned out to be not so much indifferent to money as screwed by it.”
- In praise of finishing every book you start: “The most common defense of book-dropping I hear is that because there are more good books than any one person could possibly read, it’s stupid to waste time on a dull or otherwise unsatisfactory novel. That argument makes sense if the novel is utter trash—if it’s so bad that the reader needn’t respect the author and would possibly get dumber by going forward. But if a novel starts well and descends into trash, then it seems to me that it’s worth continuing to see if it gets better, or to see where the writer went wrong.”
- Your bladder is more than just an organ. It affects your stance on one of the most knotted, hotly debated questions in philosophical history. “Even healthy subjects have less belief in free will when they’re subtly reminded of their own physical limitations. [Two scientists] had people respond to a battery of questions not just about free will, but also about their current corporal desires. The desires that negatively correlated most strongly to belief in freedom were: a) the desire to urinate, b) the desire to sleep, and c) the desire to have sex.”
- In 1985—years before Cops had proven that America loves to watch its enforcers in action—a photography major at Arizona State went on spring break and began to photograph the Pasadena Police Department. Now he’s published the photos: “Welcome to hell.”
- Total number of kisses in Jane Austen novels: fourteen. Total number of speeches in Shakespeare: 34,895. And other statistics that won’t do much to improve your enjoyment of literature.
November 5, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- A new English-language interview with Knausgaard: “I once met a German journalist who compared me to a rock band. He said, the books don’t really have any focus, it’s just loose, it’s like just having some songs about drinking and they don’t have anything else. But it’s in that band photo, that image, where everything comes together. He wondered if I had a certain point in my writing, because it’s all, you know, bits and pieces and nothing. And then he saw pictures of me, he said, ‘You pose like a rock star, you kind of summarize everything there’ … He meant it really, really badly.”
- Today in the anxiety of influence: the aftereffects of one writer’s childhood obsession with Michael Crichton. “Much of the rhythm and timbre I claimed as my own in fact belonged to Crichton: isolating revelatory sentences on a line break between paragraphs … complex sentences interspersed with short sentence fragments like the dots and dashes in Morse Code. Even in my early twenties, writing bad pseudo-autobiographical short stories, it seems that I had retained, by osmosis, the stylistic habits I’d developed while eating ham-and-cheese sandwiches, drinking Coke, and imagining my name writ large on the shelves of an airport bookstore.”
- Just when you’d been thinking, Hey, it’s been a while since I heard a quality new acoustic musical instrument, along comes the Yaybahar, recently invented in Turkey; it uses “a combination of two drum-like membranes, long springs, and a tall fretted neck” to produce plaintive, resonant sounds.
- Must we continue to live in a world where this is happening? “She wears a leather corset and harem pants, like a gypsy girl from a fairytale. She is barefoot. In the dim candlelight, she asks what I’m in the mood for—something sexy? Something dark? I tell her what will please me, and she reads me a poem. She calls herself a poetry whore, and I have paid for her company. For the next ten minutes or so, she will read me her verses, converse with me, entertain me.”
- Fun facts about mace: it was invented in Pittsburgh in 1964 by a couple who kept an alligator in the basement. “At first they called it TGASI, for ‘Tear Gas Aerosol Spray Instrument,’ but soon they came up with the catchier name of ‘Chemical Mace’ … the name implied that chemicals could produce the same incapacitating effect as a medieval mace—a chilling design of spiked club—but without causing the same brutal injuries.”
November 4, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- Edgar Allan Poe filed for bankruptcy in 1842. Here’s a long list of his debts, with creditors listed in Philadelphia, Richmond, and New York, and orderly columns of numbers that grow large enough to give you a sympathetic panic attack.
- “If ambitious writers work at the boundaries of the written language (as they should), then they ought do it from a path of mastery, not ignorance; broken rules carry no power if writers and readers don’t notice the transgressions. Proper usage shows us where the earth is, so that, when the time comes, we know what it means to fly.”
- Not unrelatedly: “Dickens published an essay on slang, probably by George Augustus Sala. The 1853 article expressed the view that either slang should be ‘banished, prohibited’ or that there should be a New Dictionary that would ‘give a local habitation and a name to all the little by-blows of language skulking and rambling about our speech, like the ragged little Bedouins about our shameless streets, and give them a settlement and a parish.’ ”
- In which Ann Patchett reminds readers of the New York Times that she’s not married to her dog.
- “I found it odd that there had never been a scientist as a Man Booker judge. There have been many non-literary types amongst the judges: a former spy, a former dancer, a Downton Abbey actor—but science, apparently, was a step too far. Until this year, when I joined the judging panel.”
November 3, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- On Brecht and hygiene: “He was physically repellent. He seldom washed and he smelled. He didn’t brush his teeth, and, consequently, many of his teeth decayed and fell out … Not surprisingly, he suffered halitosis—or rather, others suffered it. Brecht probably thought that, since imitation is the highest form of flattery, he was expressing his solidarity with the proletariat by being dirty. This, however, is insult rather than flattery … Brecht’s dirtiness was a form of condescension, the product of a lack of real interest in what poor people actually wanted.”
- Please allow me to introduce myself: I’m a man of great wealth and taste. That’s why I’ve got this ten-thousand-dollar Rolling Stones art book sitting prominently, resplendently on my coffee table.
- Lionel Shriver on the bitch goddess: “I’ve had to revisit a whole era of my own life, during which I imagined I was miserable. I was living in Belfast, and my career was on the rocks. Over this period, I lost my American publisher, and two novels thereafter were released exclusively in the UK. Reviews were agreeable, but sales meager … This is going to sound a stretch, but: those twelve years in the literary wilderness as a nobody, with a horribly high likelihood of getting nobodier? I think I was happy.”
- Quick and easy advice for reading poetry (and making it, you know, fun): “Someday, when all your material possessions will seem to have shed their utility and just become obstacles to the toilet, poems will still hold their value. They are rooms that take up such little room.”
- The cinema: Should we give a fuck? “We all know that movies make a lot of money for a few people, provide a living for many, and help most of us pass the time—which is fine, as far as it goes. But beyond that, why should anyone care?”
October 31, 2014 | by Dan Piepenbring
- If you’re like me, your otherwise successful ghost-hunting expeditions are often thwarted by matters of taxonomy: Was that a wraith you just saw or simply a type-two apparition? Wonder no more. (N. B., the type-two apparition “leaves behind appalling ectoplasm stains on wallpaper and soft furnishings.”)
- Today in zingers and put-downs, we bring you Edmund Wilson on H. P. Lovecraft, 1945: “The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art.”
- Whither the artist residency? Say you’re a serious, industrious, diligent artist whose working life requires “solitude, beauty, the natural sublime, and global travel … extended stretches of time, free of any interruption, in order to create new work. All of this can be found on a container ship.” A new residency called Container gives artists the chance to work on just such a ship. (“Artists won’t have to live in a container,” the program hastens to add.)
- And while we’re hithering and thithering: Whither Ethan Hawke, who seems finally to have escaped the long shadow of the nineties? “Ethan Hawke was once the mascot we did not ask for. He has become the one we deserve.”
- To raise money for Freedom from Torture, seventeen authors—including Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, Ken Follett, Hanif Kureishi, Will Self, Alan Hollinghurst, and Zadie Smith—are offering the rights to name characters in their new novels. (They call this an “Immortality Auction,” which implies that all the authors involved expect to have healthy readerships in the coming eons.)